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Emotional Eating

Exploring a better relationship with food

Do you eat when you feel stressed, bored, sad, lonely, happy, or any of a hundred other emotions? In our food-abundant environment, eating may feel like an easy way to soothe, distract, and add pleasure to our daily routine. Emotional connections to food are normal and healthy: celebrating a birthday, gathering around the family table, or bringing soup to a sick friend. However, I’ve seen emotional eating become a problem when it is the primary way a person comforts or nurtures him or herself.

The first step is recognizing some of the signs of emotional eating. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Food feels like a quick and convenient way to manage your feelings.
  • You reach for comfort food – especially crunchy, salty snacks and sweets – when feeling  emotions like stress or anger.
  • You lose track of how much you’ve eaten. When people eat for emotional reasons, they’re less aware of what or how much they’re eating.
  • Do you use food to make yourself feel better? Eating can’t satisfy your emotional needs, so it is easy to consume a lot of food while trying to soothe yourself.

In my experience, emotional eating makes it harder for people to stick to their meal plans and reach their goals, so it may be a particular issue for those living with diabetes. And it can feel like an ongoing struggle, because eating only gives you temporary pleasure or distraction. The emotional triggers usually come back again and again, and food doesn’t really solve the problem. Also, emotional eating may easily become a vicious cycle, as it often can lead to shame and guilt – and then potentially more overeating as we try to manage those feelings.

Here are some practical tips I’ve found for preventing and coping with emotional eating.

Preventing Emotional Eating

  • Don’t label yourself “an emotional eater.” Instead, identify the behavior as “emotional eating,” since unlike personality characteristics, behaviors can be explored and changed.
  • Create a self-care buffer zone. Adequate sleep, balanced eating, regular physical activity, blood sugar control, and time to relax and de-stress may make you less susceptible to emotional eating.
  • Don’t deprive yourself of your favorite foods. Deprivation and guilt are powerful emotional triggers that may lead to overeating. Balance eating for nourishment and eating for enjoyment.
  • Eat mindfully. Eating very consciously (not just grabbing food and eating without letting your brain register) may make for a more satisfying emotional experience. Savor each bite more slowly than usual, staying aware of how your body feels as you eat. You can read more about mindfulness and diabetes here.
  • Build a team to support you in your efforts to move beyond emotional eating. Your healthcare team, including friends and family, may be a great source of strength and help.

Coping with Emotional Eating

Your emotions –­ no matter how difficult or trivial they may seem – often tell you something about your true wants and needs. When you identify the emotions that trigger the desire to eat, you may be able to seek other ways to comfort, nurture, calm, and distract yourself without turning to food. A few strategies I’ve learned along the way:

  • Recognize “head hunger.” Whenever you feel like eating, pause and ask, “Am I hungry?” Remember that when a craving doesn’t come from actual physical hunger, eating can’t satisfy it.
  • Pause to notice what is happening in the moment. Slowing down may help you recognize that your desire to eat when you aren’t hungry is really about an underlying need such as fatigue, stress, boredom, or frustration. All of those emotions and feelings may be addressed more effectively than by eating!
  • Cravings can be clues. The food you crave may give insight into your underlying emotion or need. For example, a craving for a favorite childhood food may be an indication that you want comfort. Think of another way to give yourself comfort, whether talking to a close friend or taking a walk in nature.
  • Avoid labeling emotions as “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative.” I believe all emotions are information that you can use to better understand your experience and help you recognize how to take better care of yourself.
  • Have compassion for yourself. Criticizing yourself for what you’re feeling keeps you stuck in old patterns. When you feel like eating for emotional reasons, you are often simply trying to feel better. That’s perfectly okay, we all want to feel better! But try to think about what else you could do, instead of eating, that might work.
  • I tell people to “ride the wave.” Try to imagine that you are floating on a raft as your emotions come and go. It is futile to resist the ones that feel unpleasant; resistance only adds to your discomfort. Likewise, it is pointless to cling to the emotions that feel pleasant; just enjoy them while they last.
  • Respond instead of reacting automatically. Realize that emotional eating is a coping mechanism and that you have many other options available to you.
  • Strategize other solutions. What small step could you take to meet your underlying needs instead of eating?
  • Ask for help when needed. Reach out to a counselor, coach, religious leader, or other trusted advisor to help you understand and cope with emotional eating.

Learning to recognize, prevent, and manage emotional eating more effectively may help you feel better, emotionally and physically. I’ve seen so often that when we cultivate healthy emotional connections to food, eating becomes more balanced and satisfying.

Michelle May, M.D., is a recovered yoyo dieter and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes and Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. May is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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  1. Jenny
    February 13th, 2014, 12:56 PM

    This was a very powerful article given I am a sugar aholic for sure. I have used sugar myself to numb countless losses through the years now having diabetes has sure made me re-evaluate what I want for my life.