Supporting Others with Emotional Eating During Difficult Times
Heather Freudenthal, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, IIN Contributing Editor
Staying Healthy and Happy While at Home
Working from home is not new to some. Many people conduct business remotely as technology continues to advance and productivity is no longer limited to an office desk.
However, with the COVID-19 outbreak spreading quickly and widely, more and more companies have pushed for their employees not to come into the office, even before government officials encouraged and, in some cases, mandated it.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the protocol has been to practice social distancing. That means not only working from home, but learning and exercising from home as well. Those whose lives were built around a 9–5 schedule suddenly find themselves in their homes all day, every day.
While this initially might feel like a pleasant change – no more long commutes or having to put on a suit and tie – the shift has caused many people to reevaluate how they structure their days and stay healthy, especially without access to gyms or their favorite organic food spots.
A big part of staying healthy while being stuck at home is diet. However, it’s not just about what we eat, but also when, how much, and why. Although physical hunger plays a big role in dictating our eating habits, many of us eat due to emotional hunger. It’s normal to engage in emotional eating during a pandemic as our emotions are especially heightened.
Defining Emotional Eating
Simply put, emotional eating is the practice of eating in response to our feelings or emotions rather than physical hunger or the need for dietary nourishment. Emotional eating can also take the form of overeating, eating more frequently than usual, or craving specific comfort or junk foods. Emotional eating is normal and something we ALL do from time to time. Some common feelings that trigger emotional eating are stress, anxiety, depression, and boredom. However, emotional eating can also be a way to distract ourselves from other repressed emotions we don’t want to feel. Emotional eating, like any regular activity, can easily become a habit. So even when we realize we’re doing it, it’s quite common to continue doing it on autopilot.
Identifying emotional eating can be tricky. The urge to eat, snack, or reach for comfort foods can strike so quickly, we might easily mistake it for physical hunger. How do you know if what you’re experiencing is emotional eating? There are a few ways to tell:
- Emotional hunger usually comes on fast or sudden, whereas physical hunger tends to come on more gradually. The next time you suddenly find yourself craving food, check in: When was the last time you ate? Was it one hour or several hours ago? Everyone’s spacing between meals will vary slightly, but chances are if you ate a healthy, balanced meal only one hour ago and you’re feeling hungry again, it may be emotionally driven.
- Emotional hunger does not satiate for long after we consume food – understandably because when we emotionally eat, we’re not actually addressing what we are really hungry for. If it’s anxiousness we are feeling, how are we calming ourselves? If it’s boredom, how are we entertaining ourselves? We have to address our feelings about our primary food – the things that nourish us off our plate, such as career, physical activity, home environment, and personal relationships. To truly satisfy emotional hunger, we need to identify the underlying negative emotions we’re feeling in these areas – and satisfy them.
- Emotional hunger, unlike physical hunger, is not felt in the stomach. We all know the telltale signs of physical hunger in the form of stomach growling and that painful gnawing if we go without food for too long. When our stomachs are physically empty, the rumbling we hear and feel is our organ and muscular activity. It’s louder because there is no food to buffer the sound! However, when emotional hunger strikes, it’s coming from our thoughts, not our bodies.
When we slow down and check in with ourselves before heading to the fridge, we can usually identify what’s driving our desire to snack.
Because emotional eating is triggered and fueled by our feelings (not biology), it’s easy to get stuck in an emotional eating cycle. For example, boredom can lead to more frequent and larger food intakes, which can then create feelings of guilt. To suppress or soothe those feelings of guilt, we might reach for sweet foods that temporarily soothe us. Both the food itself and the act of emotionally eating only feed the cycle more. When we are under chronic stress, it becomes that much more difficult to mindfully change our behavior as the triggers are ongoing rather than spaced-out, isolated events.
When we are stressed, cortisol levels rise. Cortisol interferes with ghrelin and leptin, our hunger and fullness hormones, causing us to feel hungrier and making us less able to feel full. This inhibits our ability to satiate physical hunger in a healthy way.
Eight Tips for Tackling Emotional Eating
This is why stress management is an integral part of ongoing self-care. Training our bodies to cope with stress in a healthy way rather than letting overeating become our stress response is an important process. Fortunately, there are simple yet effective strategies we can use to tackle emotional eating and break free of the cycle.
- Awareness is key. It is the first step in identifying if you are struggling with emotional eating. Simply calling more attention to it is a major step toward improvement. You could keep a journal to track whenever you feel hungry and make note of how you feel emotionally and where in your body you feel the hunger. Try keeping track for a few days and see if you notice any patterns.
- Go easy on yourself. We all emotionally eat. This does not mean you are doomed to emotionally eat forever or that you are unhealthy, will become overweight, or have a disorder. Breaking the pattern of emotional eating is a process. You will not change your habits in one day. Approach your efforts with compassion and nonjudgmental curiosity. When you identify a pattern, there is no need to force or shame yourself into changing. Simply take note and make small steps toward shifting.
- Know that emotional eating is not the same as disordered eating. There are many types of disordered eating, which are classified by the severity, frequency, and type of symptoms demonstrated. Although emotional eating and disordered eating can coexist, they are not the same. Binge eating disorder (BED) is commonly and mistakenly used interchangeably with emotional eating, however BED is a classified eating disorder, which must be treated and diagnosed by a specialist.
- Feel your feelings. Because emotional eating is driven by our feelings, we will have a much better handle on it if we address the underlying cause. No one wants to experience unpleasant emotions, such as sadness, guilt, pain, or fear. However, it’s reassuring to remember that no feeling is harmful or permanent. Feelings come and feelings pass. Welcome all feelings in and sit with them – the good and the bad. The more we can sit with our feelings and acknowledge their existence, the less they will dictate our eating behaviors.
- Practice mindful eating as opposed to mindless eating. When stuck at home, many of us find ourselves compulsively opening cabinets and checking the fridge, even if we just ate! Many of our emotional eating habits are just that: habits. The more we can slow down and pay mindful attention to our cravings and actions, the more we can regain control. Slowing down helps us identify when we are turning to food as a coping mechanism versus for nourishment. Slowing down when we eat is also crucial for distinguishing between feeling comfortably satiated versus uncomfortably stuffed. A great way to slow down is to sit at a table to eat as much as possible instead of standing in the kitchen or eating at your desk.
- Check in with yourself frequently. Ask yourself grounding questions and respond honestly. For example, when a craving strikes, where do you feel it? Is it in your stomach? your chest? your mind? What does the craving want? What are you hungry for specifically? something salty? something sweet? When you have a craving, can you pause long enough to imagine eating the food and feeling truly better after? There are no “right” answers. Just get in the habit of checking in with yourself and noting your honest responses.
- Stay hydrated! Did you know that dehydration can feel like hunger? When you feel the urge to snack, it could actually be your body telling you it’s thirsty, not hungry. Try drinking a full glass of water before reaching for food. You can add some lemon or cucumber for flavor. Check back in with yourself after you finish a glass and see if it’s done the trick!
- Reconsider your food environment. Your food environment refers to your influences and immediate surroundings as it relates to food. This could be overt things, such as the types of snacks you keep visible in your home and the grocery stores in your neighborhood, and even things as subtle as the food advertisements you are exposed to and the size of the dishes you eat from. Our food environment can play a big role in our eating habits. Becoming more mindful of emotional eating and changing habits can take some time, so in the meantime, consider ways you can arrange your food environment to better support you. For example, try keeping only healthy snacks visible in your kitchen – rather than a candy bowl, keep a fruit bowl or jar of your favorite nuts on the counter. This will ensure that if you do find yourself snacking frequently, it will be with nourishing whole foods. You could also minimize your media exposure to avoid unhealthy food advertisements or swap out your larger plates for smaller ones to reduce serving sizes.
How Health Coaches Can Help
We all need support while working to break out of emotional eating habits. It can be instrumental to work with a Health Coach who is there to support and guide you through the process. A Health Coach is a trained wellness professional who specializes in helping their clients set realistic health-related goals, providing accountability, and holding a safe space for their clients to explore the deeper issues at the root of feeling stuck. Health Coaches make a huge difference in helping their clients successfully change unwanted behaviors and patterns and reach their wellness goals by exploring the client’s life holistically through both primary and secondary food (the food on your plate).