Written by Madalynn Wise:
Imagine this, you come home from an exhausting, long day at work. You have been stressed all day and you get home and it’s finally quiet enough for you to think. You put on some comfy clothes then you rummage through the fridge until you find leftover pizza and then decide you may want dessert, so you grab a pint of ice cream too – just in case. You get comfortable on the couch and start eating. All the tension in your body drains out, your body finally gets some relief. Suddenly you look down and realize you ate all the leftover pizza and you just hit the bottom of the pint of ice cream. You didn’t even realize you did it, but it made you feel a little better – it was the most relaxed and comforted, you had felt all day. However, shortly after you have finished indulging, guilt and shame override those feelings of relaxation. You start to feel guilty about having eaten all that food, you are overfull, and you feel sluggish. Your anxiety starts to creep back up and your body is tensing up again. You remember that blissful feeling of peace you had just had, and how your mind had finally gotten quiet for a minute. So, you get up and go back to the fridge to see if you can find that relief again.
This is an example of emotional overeating and if this sounds like you, you are a part of a 38% of adults who report overeating due to stress and anxiety. Essentially, emotional overeating is exactly what it sounds like – eating in excess (past when your body tells you that you are full) to soothe or comfort negative feelings due to emotional triggers. These triggers can include but are not limited to stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, even plain boredom, and they can be triggered by things we face every single day. Food can also be used to distract your mind from anxiety-inducing thoughts and events. One of the issues with this is if you start to turn to food as comfort for your emotions, your body will be trained to look for a snack every time you feel overwhelmed or sad or angry – it can become your main coping mechanism quickly and other things won’t seem to work as well. Whatever emotions or triggers drive you to overeat, the result is usually the same: the soothing effects of overeating are temporary and soon those emotions come back, usually joined by guilt and anger at yourself. These intense feelings can lead to another binge to self-soothe and can result in more negative feelings and the cycle begins all over again.
Emotional overeating (EO) may seem like a better alternative than other ways of self-medicating, but it comes with its own host of problems. Many studies have linked emotional overeating due to stress to obesity which can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues. Many people report that after emotional overeating they feel sluggish and lazy and feel bad about their bodies. EO can also be precursors to eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder as it can often be associated with low self-esteem and poor body image which then causes disordered eating.
What can you do if you are an emotional overeater? Here are some tips to try and combat EO:
Keep a food diary of some sort to log times when you tend to overeat and see what overeating looks like to you so you can identify any patterns. Are there certain times of the day where you’re overeating? Is it only after seeing a certain person or going to a certain place?
- Try to identify your emotional triggers. Do you eat when you’re bored? When you’re anxious? After social events? After work? When you’re sad? Once you can identify these triggers it can help you prepare ahead of time if you know you’re going to be triggered and want to overeat.
- Find alternative coping strategies to use instead after your EO has been triggered. If you’re bored, pull out a puzzle you have been meaning to start or read a book. If you’re lonely or sad, call someone that can help make you feel better or go outside for a walk.
- Don’t try to restrict your foods or skip meals, include things in your diet that satisfy your sweet or savory cravings to help keep those cravings in check and resist the urge to binge.
- Check in with yourself when you get cravings. Are you physically hungry or just emotionally hungry?
- Practice mindful eating – taking time to eat your food and savor it then checking in after to see if you are still hungry or feel satisfied.
- Pause before giving into cravings, make yourself wait 5-10 minutes before giving into the craving – if you are still hungry afterwards try portioning out food to eat then checking in back after you have eaten that.
- Find a way to manage stress or anxiety better. Try meditation or walking outside or yoga.
- Practice self-care, make time for relaxation.
Feeling out of control in your own body can be exhausting and feel very hopeless which is what keeps a lot of people on this vicious cycle of eating to alleviate stress and anxiety. Another reason this can be a hard habit to overcome is because we need food to survive, we can’t completely abstain from food like we could alcohol. If you struggle with overeating, it can be a constant battle of trying to overcome the urges every time you eat.
If you are struggling with emotional overeating and have tried to get better by yourself but can’t seem to make any progress, seek help from a professional and know that you are not struggling alone.
Melinda Smith, M.A. “Emotional Eating and How to Stop It.” HelpGuide.org, 1 Mar. 2023, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm.
“Stress and Eating.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2013, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating#:~:text=Thirty%2Deight%20percent%20of%20adults,these%20behaviors%20weekly%20or%20more.
“Tips to Stop Emotional Eating.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2 Dec. 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342#:~:text=Emotional%20eating%20is%20eating%20as,disrupt%20your%20weight%2Dloss%20efforts.