Understanding emotional eating

Our clinical psychologist, Dr Veena Sothieson, outlines the concept of ‘emotional eating’ and what you can do about it.

Most of us have turned towards food in an attempt to manage feelings, at some point. Perhaps we’ve had a stressful day at work or we feel bored or restless. We could also feel happy and excited, and turn towards eating as a way to celebrate, relax, or reward ourselves.

Emotional eating can be triggered by factors such as external situations or event, alcohol or drug use, or fluctuations in energy or hormonal levels, which can result in negative or positive mood states. In these scenarios, we might start to use food as a way to cope with our mood states.

Stress is a common trigger for emotional eating. When we’re busy and overwhelmed, or if we feel out of control in some way, emotional eating can be a quick solution to help us feel better. It can provide us with a sense of emotional comfort and safety, and the more we rely on it this, the more likely we are to keep turning to food for these reasons. It becomes a habit to turn to food in response to certain mood states.

Why do I engage in emotional eating?

Be curious about your learning and history with food and eating. How do you view food? How does this contribute towards how you eat?

Many people categorise certain foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. Where did this come from for you? Society? Media and social media? Your family’s attitudes and beliefs about food? Comments from friends growing up?

How did loved ones or peers think about and talk about food? What have you seen them eat? Do they eat in a particular way? Perhaps you have seen others use food as a way to cope with feelings.

Has food been a regular form of escape or avoidance for you? Perhaps you love food and it is one of the greatest sources of comfort and pleasure for you.

Understanding emotional eating / Sydney City Psychology

Was food a part of your culture and present in ample amounts at celebrations? Were there regular feasts? Or were you raised under more food-restricted conditions? Perhaps financial freedom or financial restriction influenced what you/your family chose to eat. Or perhaps food was tightly controlled in your family for other reasons, like beliefs about the consequences of eating ‘too much’ or ‘too often’.

All-or-nothing thinking patterns also result in either eating too much or not eating at all. Perhaps you even oscillate between a restriction mindset and an indulgence mindset.

Your relationship with food and eating can also be linked to body shape, weight and appearance. If you were labelled ‘fat’ or ‘thin’, had internal/external pressures to look a certain way, you may have restricted what you ate for a long period of time, until you couldn’t any more. Or perhaps you rebelled against messages from others that you were ‘too big’ by eating more and ensuring that their messages would not influence you. Some people even use eating as a way to punish themselves in moments of guilt, or to punish others who might shame them.

Perhaps fear of weight gain led to engaging in different patterns of eating over time and altered your relationship with food. What images or memories might you associate with weight gain? What is your personal history of people around you gaining weight, or even of yourself gaining weight at different times in your life? What emotional response do you notice when you recall these memories or images?

Understanding emotional eating / Sydney City Psychology

Being curious about your history with food can help identify what has contributed towards emotional eating without blame and judgment, because blame and judgment are not helpful. Just taking an open, interested, compassionate look at the way that food and eating was represented around you throughout your life will allow you to glean more useful insights that you can then address in the here and now, and for your future.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with emotional eating on occasion. But when it becomes problematic by impacting your life significantly over a period of time, you may want to address it.

Too much of anything is problematic

Typically, emotional eating is problematic when food is constantly used as a way to regulate how we feel. And there’s nothing wrong with a solution that works. Until it does not work long term, as it happens with greater frequency, greater intensity or with worsening consequences.

Eating as a quick emotional fix can make us feel worse long term because our feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and frustration can increase.

Other negative consequences include a deterioration in physical and psychological wellbeing, unnecessary weight gain resulting in increased medical conditions and illnesses, financial or social consequences, increased avoidance of previously pleasurable and meaningful activities, increased preoccupation with food and eating, and greater time spent on food and eating to the detriment of other areas of our lives and relationships.

An obvious problem is the types of foods we turn towards when emotional eating. These foods tend to be highly processed like refined carbohydrates, with high contents of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. Unfortunately, these types of foods also influence the pleasure centres of our brains and can become unhelpfully reinforcing over time, meaning that we will crave these sorts of foods more and more when we feel a certain way.

If the frequency or severity of emotional eating episodes increase, this could turn into emotional overeating or binge eating, where there is a sense that one has lost control over eating, and physical cues of hunger can be lost.

So, what can you do?

It is important to eat regularly, incorporating adequate amounts of a variety of food groups for a nourishing diet, and also allowing yourself to have ‘treat foods’ occasionally.

If you’re unsure what daily food intake should look like for your nutritional and energy requirements, consult an accredited practising dietitian.

Increase your awareness of unhelpful emotional eating patterns and develop a plan about how you can tackle emotional eating before, during and after it occurs.

Be realistic and also understanding towards yourself, as you are bound to make mistakes and slip up. Persevere consistently with what you commit to do. Finally, make a note of why it is important for you to make these changes somewhere that you can easily review, for when you momentarily forget the reason why you have chosen to change your relationship with eating. It is important to be able to remember your ‘why’.

If you want further support around this issue, see a health professional like your GP, a psychologist or dietitian for more specialised help and input. Like any habit, you can change the way you relate to food and eating, so reach out for that extra support if needed.

Understanding emotional eating / Sydney City Psychology