Stressed out? Grab the Popcorn. Depressed? It’s All About Chocolate.

What Exactly is Emotional Eating?

You know the drill. Like an involuntary reflex we reach for a salty snack to graze on when we are feeling stressed or anxious, using a repetitive action of bowl/bag/box to mouth that a robot would envy. And we aren’t talking broccoli crowns or chickpeas here. When it comes to stress eating, only the lowly high-carbohydrate, high calorie, salt-laden snacks will do. When tensions are high, we crave foods that satisfy the lowest realm of nutrition…think Cheetos.

Why is it that our emotions seem to take complete control over our eating habits? Intellectually, we are well aware that copious servings of Haagan Dazs are not going to mend our broken hearts after a breakup, and will likely only make us feel worse when our jeans no longer fit. But we don’t care, right? In the moment, sorrow trumps logic and there we sit scarfing chocolate chocolate chip straight out of the carton.

The truth is, however, that emotional eating is stupid eating, and only undermines our health and well-being if we allow our feelings to lead to such over-indulgences too often. But what is it that cause otherwise intelligent human beings to suddenly crave ridiculous amounts of comfort food when our emotions take us on a roller coast ride? Here are some of the potential triggers:

  • When we experience chronic stress, ongoing issues with family life, relationship problems, financial stress, we develop coping mechanisms to help us manage the elevated stress levels. Some people may use alcohol or drugs, some may over-exercise, and some may eat. Any response that is not done in moderation is considered maladaptive, and stress eating can easily fall into that category when it results in unwanted weight gain or health problems.
  • We have a culture that connects eating to positive feelings. We celebrate events and we eat. We throw a party and we eat. Food becomes subconsciously associated with fun, happy, positive situations. So when we are faced with negative events that cause us to feel sad, angry, frustrated, or anxious, we may reflexively seek solace in food because its role as something that accompanied positive moments in life is deeply engrained.
  • We substitute comfort foods for intimacy. After a loss, such as the end of a romance or the death of a loved one, we may feel a void in our lives. Grieving the loss of something—a job, a person, a home, health—involves coming to terms with what is no longer there. The pain of loss is very difficult to endure, and reaching for comfort foods, things that you remember with fondness from childhood for instance, helps fill the emptiness in one’s life.

So how does one control emotional eating? First of all, if these carb binges only occur occasionally it is not a problem. Everyone deserves an occasional stroll down the candy aisle when we have the blues. Emotional eating only becomes a problem if it is practiced consistently, or at least much of the time. Continual indulging of these low value foods will eventually have a deleterious effect on your health, wellbeing, and mood. You will begin to feel disgusted with yourself, knowing that you are basically mistreating your body in response to some ongoing emotional issue, and self-loathing will only enhance the destructive eating cycle.

Here are some tips to help gain the upper hand over emotional eating:

  1. Practice mindful eating. Stop and really focus on what you are chewing. Turn off the TV or any distractions and really focus. Think about the quantity of servings of junk food you are putting into your body. Think about the fat, starch, excess salt, excess sugar that you are munching on and swallowing. Make yourself mindful of the lack of value this food has, and how it can hurt you in the long run.
  2. Feel the feelings. Many people practice emotional eating to avoid addressing their true feelings. Instead of contemplating financial problems and try to find a solution, you seek relief from stress through vast quantities of queso and chips. By avoiding the problem or difficult situation that is causing stress or unhappiness, you only prolong the pain. Put the chips down, grab a pen and paper, and make a budget.
  3. Replace comfort food with other pleasures. For some people, looking forward to that big slap of chocolate cake every evening after dinner is what they live for. Like a drug, comfort foods can become the center of one’s world. Some may believe they deserve the indulgence at the end of a hard day, but eventually, the pounds pile on and body-loathing ensues. Try a new routine, some new pleasure to look forward to. Try an extravagant bath with essential oils and candles, an evening walk, taking up a new hobby or craft after work, or taking a class.

PeoplePsych is a Chicago-based team of highly skilled psychotherapists trained to help individuals reform unhealthy eating habits and learn productive ways to channel emotions. For compassionate assistance in reining in emotional eating, contact PeoplePsych today at (312) 448-7218.