Emotional eating: Stuffing your feelings with food?

Your boss gives you a poor performance review, so you stop for a fully-loaded pizza on the way home from work. Your teenager screams at you in the kitchen, and you “treat” yourself to a couple of donuts after he heads off to school. Things are tense with your partner, so you wolf down a large slab of chocolate cake before bed.

Or—a global pandemic has you ricocheting from despair about the future to hopefulness that life will soon return to normal.  

Call it what you want — “emotional eating,” “stress eating,” “comfort eating” — the symptoms are the same: the habit of responding to stressful events and difficult feelings by typically eating high-carb, high-calorie foods with little nutritional value (think ice cream, cookies and chips), even when you aren’t particularly hungry. Negative emotions can make people feel emotionally empty and food is a way to fill the void and create a sense of fullness.

About 40% of people respond to stress by eating more (while an equal number respond by eating less), making emotional eating highly common. The problem, of course, is that repeated bouts of this behaviour can contribute to obesity, which in turn, leads to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

Emotional eating is not necessarily related to binge eating. The difference between the two is the amount of food consumed. In order to qualify for a diagnosis of binge eating disorder, a person must binge an average of once a week over a period of three months. Binge eating is characterized by compulsive overeating, eating faster than normal, concealing the amount of food eaten and feeling shame and regret afterwards. 

So how does one change patterns of behaviour so that food is not used as a way to avoid feeling difficult emotions? Here are 6 strategies to consider:

  1. Seek help from a professional:  A physician or psychologist can help you understand your emotional eating patterns and their root causes. You can also consider a peer support group such as Overeaters Anonymous. 
  2. Find ways to deal with stress and be good to yourself: Surround yourself with positive people, engage in activities you enjoy and give yourself time to decompress and relax.
  1. Exercise: Get outside for a long walk in nature, do yoga at home or play sports with friends. Such activities release feel-good hormones that can boost your spirits and help you better manage difficult situations.
  1. Consider a mindful eating app: These can help you become more focussed on the experience of eating and becoming in-tune with your hunger, fullness and satisfaction signals. Two popular options are Mindful Bite and Am I Hungry? Being intentional when you are eating means not snacking in front of the TV or compute
  1. Keep a food diary: This can help you determine the triggers that lead to emotional eating. It can also be a helpful tool to share with a healthcare professional.
  1. Avoid temptation: Try not to grocery shop when you feel upset and carefully consider what you put in your cart. If you don’t bring high-fat, sweet or calorie-laden foods home in the first place, they won’t be on hand in times of distress.
  1. Remember, that truly experiencing your feelings is better than feeding them. Naming your emotions, whether its sadness, anxiety, boredom or loneliness, helps you recognize them—and that’s the first step to working through them.