Its 9pm and the chocolate that you hid at the back of the pantry is calling you.

You long to hear the crisp crack as you break off a piece, and even before your fingertips touch the foil wrapper, your mouth is watering and you can taste the smoothness of that luscious brown stuff. Before you know it, a whole row is gone and you’re reaching for a second without even a thought, and everything in the world seems good again.

But is it?

Wikipedia defines emotional eating as the “propensity to eat in response to positive and negative emotions”. In other words, turning to food for comfort.

Although emotional eating has long been associated with feelings of unhappiness (like when a relationship breaks down and we turn to the tub of ice cream), emotional eating can also be associated with happy feelings, like birthday parties and celebrations.

The trouble is, once you associate food with feelings, it can become a crutch to prop you up not just in time of sadness or celebration, but also when you’re feeling bored, or stressed, or anxious, or any range of feelings – and when we emotionally eat, we usually reach for the quickest, sweetest thing we can find, which is not conducive for staying healthy.

How does emotional eating develop?

It is believed that for some people, emotional eating stems from childhood, where treats were given as a reward for good behaviour or achievements, or where we are told “here, have a cookie and it will feel better”. Even having to finish what’s on your plate at dinner time could be a contributing factor, as we are taught to keep eating even though we are already satisfied.

Some theories suggest that in adulthood, emotional eating stems from being unable to fully articulate our emotions, and that eating provides a distraction from our real feelings – at least for a short time. Other theories point to emotional eating as a way of making us feel good temporarily when we don’t feel good about ourselves, or that eating reduces feelings of stress.

In other words, eating is a way to avoid, or cope with, our true feelings.

What emotional eating does to your body

Emotional eating feels different to eating for hunger (refer to the infographic). Often, your stomach is not rumbling, you crave something specific and you do not feel satisfied even after eating a meal.

What this means is that you reach for the chocolate or cake or ice cream – all foods that are high in sugar and fat. These foods make your blood sugar levels spike (only to crash later), causing mood swings and feelings of lethargy. Fatty foods can lead to fatty layers around your internal organs, which leads to many health problems over time. Oh and of course, another effect of these foods is the dreaded weight gain!

And the worst bit? Emotional eating doesn’t actually satisfy you. Often, once the eating is done, feelings of guilt or unhappy quickly set in.

emotional eating infographic

How to stop emotionally eating

But there is some good news in all of this, and that is that you can re-train your brain and stop emotionally eating for good. Truly!

Follow these 5 steps, repeat them as often as needed, and you’re on your way to better health:

Step 1 – identify the signs

The first step is to identify your emotional triggers – were you feeling sad / stressed / excited / bored immediately before you started eating? Being aware of what emotion triggers the eating, and learning the difference between true hunger signs and emotional eating signs, can help you recognise when you are eating emotionally, instead of for hunger.

Step 2 – create a new habit

Now that you have identified that you are eating for emotions and not for hunger, find something else to do with your time. Go for a walk, practice deep breathing, and replace the unhealthy habit with a healthy one. Whatever you do, just step away from the kitchen!

Step 3 – remove temptations

Avoid putting your trigger foods into your shopping trolley in the first place. If there is no chocolate hidden at the back of the pantry for that 9pm craving, you can’t eat it!

Step 4 – prepare healthier alternatives

Have quick and easy, but healthy, snacks ready should you need them. Replace the chocolate / unhealthy foods with nuts, a boiled egg or fruit. These foods are all quick to grab and eat, and are healthy too!

Step 5 – be kind to yourself

If some of that chocolate did happen to find itself in your hand last night, remember that every day is a new opportunity to start fresh. Identify your triggers and set yourself up to succeed by going through these steps again. You can do it!

Emotional eating is a common problem experienced by many women, and is often the cause of weight gain and other health concerns. While the reasons for eating emotionally can be complex, being able to recognise your triggers and replacing unhealthy food with healthier habits is the key to stopping for good!

If you need help to stop emotional eating speak to us about one of our programs, with weekly accountability check in calls to change your behaviours for good! Contact us here 

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By: Tracey from Inside Out Fitness