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How to Control Emotional Eating

When you are feeling anxious, stressed or bored, do you find yourself opening the fridge to see what you can eat when you are not even hungry? You might reach for a pint of ice cream when you are sad, order a pizza when you are feeling lonely or finish a large bag of potato chips as you frantically prepare for a difficult exam. Many of you might do this on occasion – and it is okay – as it can be a one-off thing and you manage to resume your otherwise healthy/balanced eating habits afterwards. However, when it is done regularly it can lead to a cycle of excess eating and can even threaten one’s health and wellbeing.

Finding comfort in food is a pretty common habit known as emotional eating. This is when food is used as a means to fill an emotional need rather than the hunger itself. It is usually not associated with physical hunger. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix emotional problems – not for the long term at least. Perhaps, in the moment it can give a little comfort – it satisfies the taste buds and quenches some feelings – but once the eating stops we are often left with guilt or disappointment for having over indulged in excess food. When eating becomes the only or dominant coping mechanism for our feelings, then we need to put on the brakes and re-evaluate our behavior during those moments.

In order to tackle emotional eating it is important to first understand the reasons behind this habit. So let’s explore what they could be:

Cortisol levels
It is a known fact that stress brings on increased levels of cortisol, hence it is penned the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol can increase the appetite and the actual cravings for sugary or fatty foods. If you are physically hungry you are ready to eat most foods (including healthy snacks, such as cucumber and celery sticks etc.,) but when you are emotionally hungry, you are more likely to gravitate towards the pizza, French fries or donuts. After binging on unhealthy food, there can also be feelings of guilt or regret which can lead to a cycle of frustration and negative feelings towards oneself.

Just being bored and having nothing to do is a common reason for emotional eating. Lots of people are constantly busy with active lives, especially city dwellers. Once they find themselves with nothing to do, they turn to food to fill that void; eating then becomes a form of entertainment. This is one of the reasons many people gained weight during the lockdown periods of the pandemic, as eating became a pastime while being stuck at home.

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Childhood Habit
Do you recall your parents giving you a delicious treat to help you deal with a tough situation or as a reward for doing something good, like getting good grades in school? Actually most of us have comforting childhood memories associated with food. Therefore, as adults we continue to have this nostalgia with food, so we tend to eat for comfort after dramatic events, whether good or bad.

Social Eating
We all have that friend who encourages you to go for a pizza or manouche meal after a night out or invites you to the best ice cream parlor in town to celebrate an occasion. We may also overeat during the holidays – with serial gatherings with friends and family involving lots of hearty meals.

How to Control Emotional Eating

Fortunately, we can differentiate between the two types of hunger. Emotional eating does not originate from the stomach, such as having those common rumbling or growling noises associated with physical hunger. It tends to start from the head; when you think about a craving or want something specific to eat. This means with conscious effort and will power there are things we can do to curb these binge eating episodes, and stick to a healthier eating plan no matter what we go through during the day. Let’s look at some of the coping strategies that can help us when we get those unnecessary cravings.

Remove the Comfort Foods. Now this is a no-brainer, but if you want to avoid snacking on fatty, sugary processed foods, simply don’t buy them! Once you get these cravings, you may turn to a banana, an apple, some carrot sticks or even unbuttered popcorn for example. So keep your fridge and cupboards filled with nibblers that are good for you.

Meditation. This amazing practice can help reduce stress, which is a major trigger for emotional eating. Meditation can also help you become more mindful of your food choices and pay more attention to the impulse to grab an item of junk food. When that urge to eat comes over you, try some meditation. Choose a quiet place to sit and observe your thoughts and your breathing. You will feel more relaxed and aligned with what you really want to do versus eating something mindlessly at the spur of the moment. You can check out this guide on how mindful meditation can help with emotional eating .
There are also some different healing modalities, including candle meditation therapy, we previously wrote about at The Wellness Project that you can also try for managing stress:

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Exercise. Hit the gym or go for a walk. A good workout triggers your body to make endorphins that interact with your brain to calm and relax you. If you work out regularly it will make you feel good about yourself and avoid the self-pity munching habit. You can also go for yoga or tai-chi, which are low impact ways to work up a good sweat too.

Food Journal. You might want to keep a food diary which can help you identify situations you are more likely to eat because of emotional instead of physical hunger. Simply write down everything you eat during the day, and note what time you ate it and where you were when you did. You will be able to see a pattern after a while (try it for a few days or a week). You’ll begin to see how healthy – or unhealthy – your food choices are; then you’ll be able to set goals to work towards better eating habits.

Make Substitutes. Well, you can create healthier versions of your favorite cheat foods. If you crave pizza, make it with cauliflower crust and a low fat cheese. Here’s a great recipe you can check out: If you have a sweet tooth, then maybe just have a mini-version of the real thing. So, instead of having an entire chocolate bar you can get the mini pack version and have one of them when the craving hits. That way you can still get the pleasure of the taste without overindulging! Find ways to eat tiny portions of the food you crave or make them into healthier versions. That way you can still ‘have your cake and eat it too’- as they say!

Get Support.
Sometimes as much as you try you can’t seem to shake this pattern of emotional eating. If you constantly have negative experiences around your eating habits it might be helpful to consult an expert to discuss the issue. You can speak to a registered nutritionist or a therapist to help find solutions or coping mechanisms. Ideally we should enjoy our food and eat it mindfully, but if it becomes a negative ritual then we should try to understand why this is happening and/or seek advice to try and change it.

We hope you liked our story on emotional eating. No doubt, the collective stress level due to the on-going pandemic coupled by the crippling economic crisis in Lebanon is taking a toll. However, the more we understand ourselves the better we can manage our habits and maintain a good balance in our lives. Let’s look after ourselves and prioritize our mental and physical well-being. Remember, you are precious so please take very good care of yourself! Bye for now…

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