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Coping with Emotional Eating
How much does it mean?
Hunger doesn’t always come from the stomach; the mind can be an equally powerful trigger when it comes to the urge to eat.
Many of us “get hungry” when we feel a need to numb certain emotions or to ease feelings of discomfort, but this sort of hunger has nothing to do with providing our bodies with energy or satisfying cravings. It is a powerful psychological hunger that takes on a life of its own and exerts control over our behaviour, and it can lead to serious weight control problems.
Of course, there is no such thing as a “quick fix” for this sort of emotional eating, but with practice, patience and support, it can be controlled.
Read on to learn more about emotional eating.
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What is emotional eating?
When we use food in response to situations or feelings that make us feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied, it’s called emotional eating. Does this scenario sound familiar to you?
In situations like this one, something happens while we’re eating to make us feel relief. Although we’re not consciously aware of it, for a brief moment, all bad feelings are suspended, and for a few moments we feel soothed.
Of course, many of us occasionally engage in eating that has nothing to do with physical hunger, but is prompted by emotions or situations. For example, on your best friend's birthday you might eat a piece of cake to be sociable even if you are not hungry. Or when you’re feeling bored, you might treat yourself to a couple of your favourite biscuits. This occasional use of food to celebrate or comfort is okay. However, if you frequently eat when stressed, bored, or upset, then your emotional eating is problematic.
Am I an emotional eater?
Emotional eating can be viewed on a continuum. Rare occurrences of emotional eating are not a problem, but repeat episodes do need attention, and severe emotional eating usually requires the insight and aid of an eating disorders specialist. Viewing emotional eating on a continuum then, the question to ask is: Where do you fit in – is your emotional eating rare, occasional or constant? If you almost always use food in one or more of the following situations it is likely that your emotional eating is problematic.
Gaining control through fulfillment
How do you find fulfillment in your life?
Emotional eating is ultimately about a lack of fulfillment. When you are unsatisfied with your life and don’t feel worthy, you eat to fill the absence and to distract yourself from your discontent. The best answer to emotional eating then is finding fulfillment and learning to be happy with yourself and your life. Easier said than done, of course, but here are some pointers in the right direction:
Gaining control through understanding yourself
Awareness begins when you "get in touch" with your feelings and how they relate to your eating habits. The best way to do this is to maintain a daily journal.
Remember that although the associations between food, comfort and security are largely unconscious, the actual decision to eat is always a conscious choice. There is always an all-important deciding moment when you make a decision to eat. Be aware of that moment.
Gaining control through action
Action starts by deciding not to eat in response to a difficult emotion or situation. It is helpful to have a list of instantly effective methods of control for when your emotional “hunger” hits. You can build a repertoire of "band-aid" diversions from eating and write them in your journal. For example:
Other diversions might include calling a friend, going to a movie, gardening, or doing some housework.
Although it is important to control your eating, you don't need to deprive yourself. Limit, but do not eliminate, some of the foods you crave. When you crave a piece of chocolate, first ask yourself if you really want it. If the answer is yes, then enjoy a few pieces. Eating balanced and good-tasting meals with enough fat, protein and carbohydrate will also help to fill you nutritionally and physiologically, and minimise cravings.
Exercise is also an excellent way to manage emotional eating. To keep weight off and calm the emotional storms that compel you to eat, try taking a daily 30-minute walk.
Last updated: September 25th, 2007
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