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Emotional Eating Isn't the Answer for a Bad Day

By Valarie Ondricka, BSN, RN

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Have you ever had a rough day and found yourself longing for the moment you could grab that bag of sweet & salty, gooey goodness, plop on the couch and sink into your favorite Netflix series? On more occasions than I’d like to admit, I’ve found myself longing for that moment and thinking to myself, “I deserve it!” 

But then there’s the aftermath, with the realization that there are consequences for my choice to deal with my stress or emotions with food. This is emotional eating, and it comes in many forms. People experiencing stress, depression and anxiety may find themselves using food to cope with their difficulties. 

When you live with diabetes, this is compounded even further! Ultimately, emotional eating may lead to erratic blood sugars, weight gain and insulin resistance.

We all love food! We use it to celebrate and to provide comfort to ourselves and to others. When I had a bad cold as a child, my mother would make a pot of her old-fashioned chicken soup loaded with carrots, celery, parsley and tender chunks of chicken. I would bundle up in blankets on the couch holding my steaming mug of soup, feeling loved and soothed. 

The problem comes when we seek comfort, fulfillment and satisfaction in food instead of facing our difficulties.

Ask Why

When we find ourselves in these situations we need to stop and think about why we are reaching for that bag of chips. 

Ask yourself, “Why am I eating this? Am I hungry, thirsty, mad, sad, lonely, afraid? Perhaps I’m bored or stressed? Do I feel I am lacking in an area of life? What am I feeling and what is the best way to deal with it?” Often the desire to eat and seek comfort are a sign of something else that needs to be addressed.

Note Your Feelings

When the tendency to overeat comes on, take a moment to jot down a few feelings in a notebook or journal. Write about what you are feeling and why, without judgment. You might be surprised what you find.  Are you lacking creativity in your life? Has it been a long time since you laughed or took a walk on the beach?

Make Changes

Once you identify what may be lacking or needs to be addressed, work toward changing it. Funnel that desire to eat into another hobby or task. Make a list of activities you enjoy and turn to these when the desire to eat emotionally strikes. Go for a walk, call a friend, work on a craft project or get a start on a neglected task—pull those weeds in the yard!

Three Common Traits of Emotional Eating

According to Ginger Vieira in her book Emotional Eating with Diabetes: Your Guide to Creating a Positive Relationship with Food, we can identify three very common habits that feed the cycle of emotional overeating: 

  1. The habit of creating restrictive rules which may lead to emotional overeating. 
  2. Not eating enough food in the day or skipping meals.
  3. Our decision process and mindset toward food. 

Restrictive Rules

Restrictive rules can set us up for emotional eating. The rules we create or adopt may provide very few options for us and can leave us feeling as if we must be perfect to carry them out. When we fail to meet what are often unrealistic expectations, it can lead to negative feelings that lead us back to food for comfort, binge eating and shame.

So how do we stop this cycle? “Eating is supposed to be pleasurable and sociable. People need to enjoy food,” says Alesha Orton, certified diabetes educator. We often get into the habit of running from activity to activity, from work to home, from home to work, leaving little time for pleasure and social activities.

Make your meals pleasurable experiences. Turn on nice music while you cook, invite friends over. Eat at the table with bright dishes and flowers, not in front of the TV. Sit, breathe in the food, and acknowledge the source of your food. Be thankful. 

Skipping Meals

When we aren’t eating enough during the day, the chances of overeating the moment food becomes available is natural. Hunger is a powerful urge.  Skipping meals also slows metabolism causing the body to burn calories at a slower rate.  Vieira recommends eating a few small meals throughout the day to keep metabolism functioning at a normal pace and prevent hunger from causing us to overeat later.

Mindset Toward Food

Our mindset toward food is also an important aspect of emotional eating. Mindless eating makes it easy to even forget that we ate. Our brains need to be actively engaged in the eating process to feel satisfied. 

Mindful eating is when we slowly and thoughtfully eat. This brings more awareness to the experience of eating.

For example, take a strawberry, look at it, note its color, shape and texture. Smell the strawberry. Taste it and notice you are salivating. Bite the food, don’t eat it all at once. Chew and notice its texture as you chew it. Swallow the food, try to notice when it hits your stomach. Think about what it took for that berry to get to you: The hand that planted the seeds, the work it took to nurture the plant and soil and the hands that harvested it. This is mindful eating. 

Notice there was no room in there for mindlessly eating and gnawing on the bad day we had. Instead we are focused on the experience of eating. This can help us prevent eating for emotional reasons, help us feel more satisfied and prevent us from mindlessly overindulging. 

Remember You’re Not Alone

Keep in mind that diabetes support groups are a great resource for ideas and encouragement from those who have similar challenges and emotions.  And of course, please share your experiences, concerns and discoveries along the way with your diabetes educators. We are here to help!

Valarie Ondricka is a registered nurse and diabetes educator with Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital.

Learn about the diabetes services offered at SPCH.