You must have heard, or perhaps indulged in, ‘stress eating‘, wherein we crave high-fat, sugar foods when we are feeling stressed. When stressed, the adrenal glands produce cortisol, which increases appetite. But, if you reach out for your ‘comfort foods’, often rich in fat, sugar, or both, when you’re going through any kind of emotional distress but without any real physical hunger, you might be indulging in what is called emotional binge eating. This often leads to overeating which further causes feeling physically uneasy and even shame, which sets off a vicious cycle of excess eating, leading to multiple health issues.
A study titled Psychological Determinants of Emotional Eating in Adolescence, published in the National Library of Medicine cites relationship struggles, financial worries, work stress, mental health issues like anxiety and depression as some of the reasons which are at the root of emotional binge eating. According to Harvard Medical School, emotional binge eating affects both sexes but is found to be more common in women than in men.
The good news is that there are ways to train your brain to stop emotional binge eating. Start by understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger, as well as adopting measures other than reaching out for food to cope with negative emotions.
Difference between emotional and physical hunger
According to Mayo Clinic, physical hunger comes on gradually, and when it does, you are likely to be open to eating any food. When you eat and feel full after a certain point, you can stop eating and later, don’t feel bad about the food you consumed. However, with emotional hunger, it is the absolute opposite: it comes on suddenly, doesn’t satisfy you even if you are full, but leaves you feeling guilt, shame, and powerlessness.
How to stop emotional binge eating (consciously, and over time)
Meditating will not only help tame the stress and anxiety but also provide you with the tools to be more mindful of your food choices. Over time, you might even be able to stop emotional binge eating right at the impulse.
Turn to nature
When you feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or upset, turn to nature. Step out to soak some sun, walk barefoot on the grass, or spend time reading amidst greenery. It will not only divert your attention from food but also help you relax.
Lean on support
Having somebody that you can reach out to when feeling negative emotions will help you train your brain to rely on support from your loved ones, as opposed to food. Having a counsellor, a coach, or even a support group goes a long way, too.
Move your body
Exercise goes a long way in helping to maintain healthy eating patterns. Besides regular exercise, which has long-term impacts of quelling anxiety and depression, you can even take your dog out for a walk, do a quick 15-minute stretch or yoga session, or even just a few jumping jacks or jog-on-the-spot to banish all thoughts of emotional hunger.
Don’t deprive yourself
You can still treat yourself from time to time by keeping a mindful check on the volume. For example, if you are craving sweets, opt for just one bar of chocolate as opposed to the whole piece, grab a handful of chips as opposed to the entire bag. Having a satisfying, balanced meal full of nutritious foods goes a long way in making you feel full as well as satiated.
The next time you feel the urge to get up and grab some cookies or chips, stop and try to figure out the trigger. Ask yourself if you are really hungry, or is it a certain emotion that is triggering this ‘hunger’? Some people find food diaries helpful in keeping a track of what and how much they ate to stay conscious of their eating patterns.
Clean your pantry
You can also clean your pantry of foods high in sugar, fat, and salt to keep temptations at bay. This way, every time you have an emotional hunger craving, you will have to consciously take the decision of walking to the grocery store to get snacks or food.
Forgive yourself, and try again
In case you do give in to a sugary treat when feeling low, don’t shame yourself for it. Start afresh the next day with a new mindset of putting your mental and physical health first, and not giving in to momentary temptations.