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Emotional Eating Doesn't Need to Be a Way of Life

If you’ve ever had a long day at work, a touchy family dinner or a cranky kid to manage, you may have headed straight to the cookies when you got home. Emotional eating is something you do even if you aren’t hungry and can be a way to manage feelings, but it can also be an unhealthy habit if it is the only way you deal with hard or stressful situations.

Brain Rewards

It’s not your imagination that a bowl of ice cream or bag of chips make you feel better — research published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science has shown that palatable foods with a high content of fat or sugar stimulate the reward centers of the brain. That’s why you keep coming back for more, even when you know you shouldn’t.

Unfortunately emotional eating doesn’t address the problem of why you’re feeling a certain way.

Recognize the Symptoms

Identifying certain eating patterns as emotional can help you stop the habit. Physical hunger develops over time and can be relieved by many kinds of food. You’ll notice a sense of fullness as you eat and don’t feel guilty when you’re finished. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, often comes on suddenly with a craving for a specific food. You might not notice feeling full and you may feel guilty when it’s over.

“We live in a society that is fast paced and encourages us to push our limits and maximize production,” said Katharine Middendorf, PhD, of Samaritan Mental Health. “This mentality can make it difficult to identify what we’re feeling in the moment, so we cover it up and keep going rather than practicing good self care.”

Start With Mindfulness

Becoming aware of your feelings is a good start, according to Dr. Middendorf. Ask yourself, what am I feeling when I reach for the chocolate brownie ice cream? Why am I feeling this way? Acknowledge your emotions and increase your awareness of your feelings. Name the emotion if you can. At the root of your eating you may find loneliness, boredom, stress, anger, sadness, happiness or any number of other emotions.

Remember that emotions, even the ones that don’t feel good, are healthy and natural. Using food to feel better is a temporary activity that doesn’t help you in the long term.

Choose a Healthy Habit

Once you are able to identify the feelings that lead to emotional eating, find a healthy replacement for the behavior. When stress cravings hit hard, instead of going straight to the pantry try, spending five minutes diverting your attention from food: go for a walk, meditate, sit outside, play a game on your phone, listen to a great song, brush the dog or doing any distracting activity can help shake loose the urge to eat your feelings.

“There are many ways to nourish ourselves without moving toward food,” said Dr. Middendorf. “If we are bored we may desire an adventure or intellectual challenge, if we are lonely we may want a connection.”

Over time you’ll get better at recognizing your feelings and channeling them into a positive behavior that can help your body manage whatever it is going through.

Love Your Body

Research links dieting, depression and eating issues in a multitude of studies. Instead of focusing on losing weight, Dr. Middendorf encourages people to put an emphasis on establishing healthy behaviors.

“We are constantly bombarded by advertising that suggests we should be in a thinner or smaller body,” said Dr. Middendorf. “Instead of fixating on the scale, think about taking care of your body and appreciating the natural diversity of shapes and sizes.”

Know When to Get Help

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating can be difficult. Don’t be afraid to get help if you need it. Ask your doctor for a referral to a counselor who can help you identify your emotions and manage them in a constructive way.

Interested in learning about hunger management?  Get tips on learning how to “gauge your growl” with the hunger scale.