When you eat without paying attention, you are likely to eat more than your body requires and to eat when you are not truly hungry. Both increase your risk for overweight and obesity.
Emotional eating leads to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more. Many moods and feelings are linked to overeating, including sadness, anxiety, sleepiness, and boredom.
It’s easy to incorporate strategies for more mindful eating, including distraction-free dining, trigger awareness, feeling feelings, and knowing how to H.A.L.T.
Food is fuel. The purpose of eating is to nourish our bodies and give them needed energy, both physically and mentally, to function each day. Using food as a way of altering, soothing, or suppressing feelings is not how your body was designed to use nutrients. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that some- where around… oh, just about all of us eat emotionally from time to time. Let’s face it, we find pleasure in eating, and there’s nothing wrong with this. Emotional eating turns dangerous when it becomes a routine coping strategy in your day-to-day life. Why is this bad? Emotional or mind-LESS eating increases your risk of obesity and overweight. Excess weight is linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic stress, stroked, and respiratory problems.
Signs of Emotional Eating
If you frequently eat to serve a purpose other than hunger, you can be reasonably confident that you are engaging in emotional eating. Both major and minor life events can trigger unconscious eating. Bored at work? Check. Going through a divorce? Check. In fact, it is the mundane to-do lists that often lead to candy bars and chips, not life-threatening emergencies. When you feel seriously threatened, you don’t think about eating or being hungry because you are too focused on being petrified or furious. That’s because your brain and body have tapped into your fight/flight mode, which takes all your attention and leaves no time to consider how much you love ice cream or French fries. Your brain produces appetite-suppressing hormones you’re your body pumps out adrenaline (it’s a real hunger killer). But after it’s all over? Pass the popcorn.
On the other hand, chronic stress can lead to emotional eating. This low-grade version of fight/flight is a not-quite-emergency, but consistently unpleasant feeling of causes the brain to increase the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone is especially good at triggering cravings for waist-expanding carbs, sugary treats, and fatty snacks. Still, it can be difficult for some people to tell the difference between true hunger and emotional hunger. Here are some clues you can look for to tell them apart.
Real hunger comes on gradually. Emotional hunger tends to come on suddenly and can feel over-whelming and urgent, while physical hunger develops more steadily.
Emotional hunger craves red-button foods. If you find yourself craving foods that provide an instant rush of energy—refined carbs and sugary snacks—then you are probably eating for emotional reasons not physical ones.
Your stomach signals true hunger. A growling belly or a pang coming from your stomach is a signal that your body needs some food.
Guilt, regret, and shame are linked non-hunger foods. Eating to satisfy emotional hunger often leaves you feeling remorseful and humiliated. When you eat to satisfy true hunger, you don’t tend to feel bad after the fact.
People who eat mindfully, but not emotionally or distractedly, are less likely to overeat. Mindful eating has also been linked to better health, less stress, and improved mood. How do you do it? Here are some simple suggestions to get you started.
Ditch distractions. Avoid multitasking while you eat. That means getting away from your laptop, turning off the television, and even waiting until a stressful meeting ends (you know, the ones that come with a box of donuts). Pay attention to what you are about to eat. Use the myCircadianClock app to take a picture of anything you eat or drink. This simple act of taking a photo will help your mind record (and remember) what you are eating. Paying attention to the taste, texture, and temperature of the food you eat is another way to make meals more mindful.
Sit down. And not in your car. Munching while you cook dinner or make the kids’ lunches for tomorrow is an excellent recipe for overeating. When you eat while preparing a meal or driving to work, calories can fly under the radar. Think about it. You’re splitting your attention between two tasks, which makes it harder to pay attention to what is going in your mouth. The end result is usually overeating later because your brain misses the message that you ate anything at all. Sitting down at a table away from screens (smartphones included) allows you to feel the subtle shift between being stated over being stuffed. Plus, it takes around 20 minutes for an empty stomach to register food, so eat slowly as well.
Be Social. The Mediterranean diet includes a social lifestyle. That means enjoying at least one meal a day with other people. Having a chance to discuss your day or your plans for the day is a great way to relieve stress, and less stress means less overeating. Just be sure to save emotionally triggering conversations for after dinner.
Know Your Triggers. Many cultures and families express love and caring with food and eating. The first step to breaking a bad habit is to know the cues that cause it in the first place. Once you can pinpoint the fact that you always overeat at the In-Laws, you can make other arrangements. Maybe suggest a walk instead of dinner. Or volunteer to be the dishwasher or server for an evening. Heep your hands busy doing non-food activities.
Incorporate Non-Food Pleasures. Mindful eating is not a diet. It is the intention of eating with awareness. With that in mind, make sure that you incorporate non-food related activities you enjoy. As children, we all naturally know that we need to play, but we lose this instinct as adults. It is just as important. This harkens to the “be social” tip above and takes it a step further. Can you remember the last time you laughed with another person? Create a “play date” at least once a week with a friend or friends to do something unnecessary and fun. Play catch. Walk the dog. Go see a standup comedian.
Feel Your Feelings. Don’t feed your feelings. There is a difference between feeling emotionally down or “empty” and being truly hungry. This is a subtle signal many of us have lost. Our 24/7 society has most people habituated to eat when bored, stressed out, sad, or angry—lots of things—but not hungry! Instead, take the time to wait until your body naturally sends hunger signals. You’ll find food more satisfying than you do when you emotionally eat, and you’ll be less likely to overeat. You’ll also be more likely to eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed. How do you know the difference between emotional hunger and true hunger? Try this: tomorrow, when it’s a time that you would normally eat, pause first and do a hunger check. Close your eyes and do a quick mental scan. How does your stomach feel? Is it growling? It’s that simple. Most people can tell if they are physically or emotionally hungry by taking this simple pause. If you are not sure, take it a step further. Ask yourself: When is the last time you ate? How did you sleep last night? Are you just coming off of a stressful event? Are you nearing the end of a mundane day of paperwork? Know your triggers. Awareness is usually the first step in breaking the pattern of emotional eating.
Love Yourself. I know, hippy-dippy, but it is true that when we are feeling down about ourselves, we are much more likely to reach for unhealthy food or to eat when we are not hungry. This can start a nasty cycle. You’re already feeling down, so you give in and eat a candy bar, but that only makes you feel worse. Should you have another piece of chocolate? Instead, H.A.L.T., which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. In recovery groups, this is a popular acronym that you can use to spot check your level of emotional balance. If you are feeling an extreme of any of these, try to address it (or at the very least, acknowledge it)-don’t feed it.
Don’t Get Too Hungry. After all that, last but not least is that you don’t want to let yourself starve. Just like the H.A.L.T. acronym above alludes to, getting into any extreme one of these situations can make you “hangry.” And you and your partner, and those who love you do not want you to be Hangry.