Your already busy week just go busier when you found out your boss assigned you to give a company-wide presentation… tomorrow.
The next thing you know, you’ve eaten half a bag of M&Ms.
You have a long drive ahead of you and you’ve already played through all your podcasts and listened to your favorite playlists. A stop at a gas station for some chips and candy will surely make the time go by faster.
Your child just used your favorite lipstick to decorate your freshly painted walls. This day deserves a good helping of that ice cream in the freezer.
We’ve all been there before. Whether we’re stressed, bored, upset or even happy, our emotions can determine our food choices. Often, when these emotions hit, we’re not grabbing for the carrots or apple, either.
Using food as a source of comfort—otherwise known as emotional eating—may seem harmless and, well, comforting. But when food becomes the main strategy for trying to manage our emotions, we’re missing the mark and forming an unhealthy relationship with food while we’re at it.
In fact, the majority of our overeating is actually caused by emotions.
When we emotionally eat, we’re eating for reasons other than physical hunger. It’s important to remember that no matter how hard we try to satisfy our emotional hunger with food, food is only capable of satisfying our physical hunger.
When we try to fix our emotions with food, the food choices are typically poor, the portion size often too large, and—because food can’t get rid of the initial emotion—we’re left with the same emotion on top of a sense of guilt or frustration for eating more than we wanted to in the first place. That’s not a winning combination.
The first step in combating emotional eating is by recognizing it.
Physical hunger will come on gradually, and you can typically postpone eating for a while. On the other hand, emotional hunger comes on suddenly, feels urgent and gives you specific cravings, such as pizza, ice cream or chocolate.
While an apple might not sound appealing when you’re emotionally hungry, an apple or any other food usually can satisfy your physical hunger. So when you’re thinking about eating, ask yourself the simple question, “Am I hungry enough for an apple?”
As you finish eating, you’re more likely to stop eating once you’ve satisfied your physical hunger. Emotional hunger likely would leave you eating more than you normally would, with an uncomfortably full feeling afterwards.
Once you’ve identified the difference between these two types of hunger, it’s easier to find alternative ways to handle the emotion.
Learning to deal with our feelings without food is a new skill that—like anything new—takes time and practice. Start by making a list of alternative things you could do to subdue your emotions when you get a craving for your favorite comfort food.
This might look like taking a walk, calling a friend, doing something productive around the house, such as cleaning or organizing, squeezing a stress ball or taking a few deep breaths at your office desk. Doing something to take your mind off whatever is causing the emotion will help distract you and reduce the food cravings.
In case you get a sudden and strong urge to eat something that can’t be resisted, try to have on hand some healthier, comfort foods. For crunch, this could be nuts or a piece of fruit. For something sweet, try trail mix with dark chocolate chips.
And to avoid mindlessly working your way through an entire bag of potato chips, prepare smaller portions of comfort foods to have at the ready.
Most importantly, as you eat, being mindful of what you’re eating will help you be more aware of why you’re eating in the first place. This will help keep you from overeating and having the post-eating guilt.
Emotions are going to happen, but it’s how we manage them that will help us become more emotionally and physically healthy.