Contributed by reader, Jenni Peers
Identifying, Understanding and Managing Patterns of Emotional Eating
The high pace of modern life, and the daily stresses and strains faced, can spill over at times, and impact all areas of life, such as impacting our overall physical and nutritional health through patterns of emotional eating. With a food advertising industry designed to incite desire to consume, and little sign of the pace of life slowing, having an understanding of patterns of emotional eating can help us identify these traits in ourselves and others around us.
What is emotional eating?
Many people will recognize the urge to use food as a reward, a pick me up, a way of celebrating. There are times when, despite being full, we will squeeze in a dessert, or join friends for a meal even though we know it’s not the best thing for our health at that moment. Emotional eating recognizes this complex relationship we all have with food – eating not just for nutrition but as a comfort, a stress relief, a social activity. The patterns of emotional eating can start young, with studies showing that by adolescence boys tend to eat if confused, and girls if under perceived stress or worry. Whilst at a low level, this is not problematic, when ones emotional relationship with food is particularly out of sync, it can become a first choice for dealing with increased stress, anxiety or other issues. This is where emotional eating patterns can become difficult to manage, and their negative impact can spread to other areas of our lives.
How can emotional eating be avoided?
Stress is one common cause of emotional over eating, and although stress in the short term can trigger the body to actually suppress appetite, over the longer term stress can physically predispose us to eating more, due to the production of the hormone cortisol. The adrenal glands release cortisol during a stressful period, but if that hormone level remains elevated, or if the stress reaction remains even after the immediate cause of the stress has passed, this can be dangerous.
One of the key tactics, therefore, in tackling stress induced patterns of emotional eating, must be to reduce the stress. Meditation has been found to greatly reduce stress, and moderate exercise is also highly beneficial as it lowers the production of cortisol, as well as improving our sense of general well being. Practises such as yoga and tai chi, which combine both exercise and meditation can be particularly beneficial. Finding sources of social support is also important in reducing stress, and joining social activities such as exercise classes, clubs and social events may provide a welcome release and distraction.
How can emotional eating be treated?
By identifying the cause of your emotional eating, and then mindfully monitoring your cravings and urges to eat, these destructive patterns can be limited and stopped from taking root. Keeping a food diary might help, to identify triggers and causes of such issues so they can be avoided. Emotional eating doesn’t cause physical hunger so much as a repeated thought pattern about a particular foodstuff or taste – often the same ‘go-to’ sweet treats we have used as rewards since childhood. Simply noticing this pattern and rationalizing it, waiting some time before satisfying it to see if it passes, can help.
Of course, if the issues experienced are severe, long standing or causing knock on problems to other aspects of life, then professional advice must be sought. If emotional eating patterns run into or overlap with other serious eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia or bulimia, medical help is essential. A medical professional can advise an appropriate treatment regime that may include specialized rehabilitation, talking and complementary therapies to address the root causes of the issue and provide longer term support.
Rewarding yourself with a few squares of chocolate after a tough workout or eating an ice cream to celebrate a promotion isn’t going to cause you any issue, but if your hunger is not satisfied after eating, and if the eating is in a binge pattern or leads to feelings of guilt or shame, then taking time to consider if emotional eating is a problem is advised.
Need a little help? Check out this other article on FAVOURITE QUOTES FOR SELF-CARE HERE
Harvard Medical School, ‘Why stress causes people to overeat’,http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2012/February/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat, accessed 26th June 2014
National Eating Disorders Association, ‘Types of Eating Disorder’,https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/general-information, accessed 26th June 2014
Weight Control Information Network, ‘Binge Eating Disorder’,http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/binge.htm, accessed 26th June 2014
Rehabs site, ‘How to choose a private rehab center’,http://luxury.rehabs.com/private-rehab-centers/, accessed 26th June 2014
US National Library of Medicine, ‘Psychological determinants of emotional eating in adolescence’.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2859040/, accessed 26th June 2014
College of Business Administration, ‘Eating their feelings : examining emotional over eating in at risk groups in the United States’,http://cba.lmu.edu/media/lmucollegeofbusinessadministration/cbafaculty/facultyresearch/Eating%20Their%20Feelings.pdf, accessed 26th June 2014