If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.
Food does more than fill our stomachs — it also satisfies our feelings, and when you quench those feelings with comfort food when your stomach isn’t growling, well that’s emotional eating. Emotional eating is in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. Turns out, there are parts of the brain that are rewarded from eating high-fat or high-sugar foods. And more than a decade of psychological research suggests that any behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated.
Don’t assume that emotional eating is reserved just for negative emotions. Feelings of stress, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom are often associated with emotional eating. But it is linked to positive feelings too. Whether it’s celebrations, traditions, holidays, or a night out with friends, all are associated with eating and comfort food.
People learn emotional eating patterns: A child who is given candy after a big achievement may grow up using candy as a reward for a job well done. A kid who is given cookies as a distraction to stop crying may learn to link cookies with comfort. The trouble with emotional eating is that once the pleasure of eating is gone, the feelings that cause it to remain. And you often may feel worse about eating the amount or type of food you did. It’s not easy to “unlearn” patterns of emotional eating. But it is possible.
Do you come home from work or school each day and automatically head to the kitchen? Stop and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” Is your stomach growling? Are you having difficulty concentrating or feeling irritable? Give yourself the broccoli test. Ask yourself this question, “would I eat broccoli right now?” If the answer is yes, then you are hungry. If the answer is no, you are probably hungry for something else. The idea is when we are physically hungry any food is appealing. If the thought of vegetables is not appealing, we’re not physically hungry. If you are hungry choose something light and healthy to take the edge off until dinner. If you are not really hungry then try to change the routine. Instead of eating when you get in the door, take a few minutes to transition from one part of your day to another. Choose a distraction. Distractions from emotional eating are things that take only a few minutes—just long enough to help you switch gears.
Some ideas for switching gears include:
going for a five-minute walk
listening to your favorite music and dancing
calling a friend to catch up
reading a book
doing things that need to be done (laundry, errands, homework)
The more ways you can think of to distract yourself, the easier it will become over time to stop stress eating. Resisting will become your new habit. You will create new rewards and habits for your mind to anticipate.
My brother and nephews recorded a song for online church during the pandemic. I love listening to it! It’s one of my distractions that refocuses me in a positive way! Enjoy!