When you eat a sweet or fatty treat, your brain releases serotonin and dopamine. And just for a moment you feel that elusive, powerful feeling – pleasure.
That’s why, in times of stress, you – and many people – find yourself in front of the pantry, reaching for that same feeling.
This is a classic example of emotional eating. And it’s one of the ways stress affects your weight and overall well-being.
There are many coping mechanisms for stress and other emotions.
People who eat emotionally tend to associate food with emotions and may crave sweets or unhealthy foods if dealing with stress. Or they may binge if feeling sad or look to food as a reward and a way to celebrate positive happenings.
Whatever the case, emotional eating can have serious effects on your mental and physical health. And it’s an easy way to derail the diet or fitness goals you may have.
You might experience that momentary respite from your feelings, but the effect doesn’t last and it can spiral into an unhealthy cycle.
The emotions return, except this time they carry a sense of guilt over having eaten too much. The guilt brings a renewed sense of sadness, and you are back reaching into the kitchen.
But you can break the cycle of emotional eating and the impact it can have on your weight and wellness.
Try these six techniques.
1. Honour your feelings
Looking into healthier ways to cope with your emotions starts by recognising what a coping mechanism can be: avoidance.
If you are feeling a certain way, naming that emotion can have a powerful effect on your attitude surrounding it.
Stay in the moment. Feel that feeling whether it’s sadness or even joy. And do so without judgment or castigation.
The more you can recognise your emotions, the more you can become aware of what those feelings are when they occur. The hope is that eventually you can become more experienced dealing with them over time.
If this is something that proves difficult for you, seek help. Try seeing a therapist. Speaking with a mental-health professional can increase your emotional vocabulary and shed light on what might be a more serious problem.
2. Keep a food journal
Tracking what makes up your diet can be a great way to discover why you emotionally eat.
Try to not only focus on what and how much you eat, but how you’re feeling before, during, and after eating.
You may start to see certain trends emerge that can give you better insight into why you might be connecting food to your emotions.
If you choose, you can write these things down in a physical journal. There are also apps on your phone that can help you track your food and feelings around eating.
3. Seek out healthy coping mechanisms
Directly dealing with emotions is usually the best method. But you can’t do that all the time. Luckily there are healthy ways to deal with the ups and downs life has to offer:
• Exercise. Getting your heart pumping and using your muscles is one of the most effective ways to sort through difficult moments in life. The benefits of exercise are numerous and well documented.
One you might not immediately consider is the triggering of feel-good brain chemicals being released.
Exercise can turn up the dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin that can also be present when you emotionally eat. Only this time the consequences are much more positive.
- Seek support. This doesn’t have to be from a professional. Often simply talking through stress or emotions with a friend or family member can help you process your feelings.
- Deal with boredom effectively. Instead of reaching for snacks when you’re not hungry, try seeking out a healthier distraction. Play with your children or pets, read a book, enjoy the outdoors, or listen to music.
4. Clean out your kitchen
This starts when you go to the grocery store. Don’t shop when you’re overly emotional or hungry.
This can help you avoid unhealthy impulse purchases that could cause trouble down the road. If your home is currently stocked with unhealthy food, donate it or give it to friends or family so you aren’t tempted.
Try replacing the unhealthy junk food with snacks that are good for you. That includes fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy dips like yogurt or hummus, and nuts.
5. Don’t go overboard
Just because you eat emotionally, doesn’t mean you need to start an extreme diet and completely shun unhealthy food.
You may be tempted to limit what you eat too much of. This typically leads to increasing food cravings, particularly on a rough day or during difficult life events.
Focus on eating a variety of healthy, nutritious foods until you are satisfied, and understand there is nothing wrong with the occasional treat.
6. Remember to forgive
Most of all, be kind to yourself. Mistakes happen, and it can seem like the cycle will never end.
But if a setback occurs, it’s not the end of the world. Forgiveness is one of the greatest human attributes. Don’t deny it to others, and certainly not to yourself.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the world’s first blog psychologist and founder of Psychreg. As an international mental health advocate, he speaks at various conferences around the world and believes that everyone experiencing a mental health problem deserves both support and respect.