How to beat Emotional Eating !

When she came into my office she had a story to tell :

"I was always a thin child. Everyone was jealous, nomatter how much I ate I never put on. Somehow people thought I was too thin. This one time I tried eating a medium pizza for a month to increase my weight but I put on just 2 kgs.
I was always an anxious child, eager to please others, eager for appreciation which according me I rarely got. I didn’t have many friends growing up I was always considered an ugly duckling. I guess I was always body-conscious. As a teenager I had several dysfunctional relationships and food was always a comfort. I think things changed when I started working. The hours were so hectic I couldn’t control when and what I ate. The stress and being hungry for long I often chose comfort food. After I got married, I had an episode of MDD. My weight just shot up after that. My relationship with food became overly dependant. I just couldn’t control my hunger like before. The weight wouldn’t go down no matter what. My husband is extremely fit. I would get jealous looking at him. I still do.
I fear he is going to cheat on me. This constant fear and anxiety gets too overwhelming and I tend to eat to soothe myself. That’s the only thing that seems to work. After my deliveries it was no looking back to the dysfunctional cycle. It just got worse. I have tried so many diets n so many exercises I just don’t trust them anymore. Even if I want to I just see no point in following it. I just want to make it stop."

It’s not only about what you’re eating, It’s also about what is eating you .

Achieving a healthy weigh and a fit lifestyle is on everyone’s mind today. Most of us understand what is good and bad to eat and that we need to exercise to stay healthy and fit. Then what is holding us back ? Why do most people make unhealthy food choices and pay gym membership fees as a charity donation ?

The key is the mind.

There are several reasons why we fail our diet and exercise & one major cause is emotional eating.

When each living being is born into this world, he is equipped with the knowledge of identifying hunger and to recognise when he is full. If you ever notice a baby, it will cry as soon as its hungry and will stop when he is full. Try forcing a toddler to eat one extra bite… He will spit it out immediately !
The problem is that as we grow, we LEARN (conditioning) to associate this basic instinctive knowledge to other things.
Indian mothers, grandmothers and aunts believe that The best way to show love, affection and concern for their child is by feeding them. A thin child is addressed as “सुकलेला” or “कितना सूख गया है” as compared to an overweight child who is referred to as “खाते पीते घर का”. Moreover we are taught that each and everything on the plate must be finished. If you have over served yourself, it doesn’t matter. You are taught to ignore the stomach’s fullness sign and overeat.
Another thing I must say is that when mothers or grandmothers cook for us, we associate the “माँ के हाथ का खाना” with comfort, safety and appreciation. Thus over a period of years we learn to associate food/ eating/ overeating with emotions of contentment, safety, soothing, love and appreciation.
Combined with this is the natural effect the food has on the brain. Whenever a basic instinct/ need or desire is fulfilled, our brain secretes the happiness hormone. There is an instant feeling of gratification which we will keep on seeking.
This lays the foundation for all the emotional eating episodes.

           Emotional eating (or stress eating) is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. You might reach for a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, order a pizza if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.

Identify your emotional eating triggers

         What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Common causes of emotional eating include:

  • Stress –
    Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, your body produces as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, it leads to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods— foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
  • Stuffing emotions –
    Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
  • Boredom or feelings of emptiness –
    Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
  • Childhood habits –
    Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom.
  • Social influences –
    Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group. 

          Everyone has a different kind of relationship with food and before you plan to take up any diet or exercise routine, you must explore and understand this relationship you share with food and how it drives your behaviour. If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfil yourself emotionally.

         Behavioural Medicine Specialists/ Bariatric Psychologists are psychological counsellors who deal with just this. 

        They help you identify dysfunctional behavioural patterns of eating, and through various techniques such as motivational interviewing, ACT(acceptance and commitment therapy), RECBT (Rational Emotive Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), Mindfulness Training help to restructure this relationship and teach different, better coping strategies to deal with stress.
A few ways to deal with emotional eating :

  1. Be Self aware :
    Notice when you get hungry. How does hunger feel like? Do you eat when you are not hungry? Make a diary or a log and notice patterns of eating behaviour.
    Next time you pick something up to eat ask yourself are you really hungry or you’re eating just because that food is available.
  2. Eat Mindfully:
    Designate a specific place to have food. Be involved in deciding your meal. Make sure you are eating in a digital free environment i.e. stay away from TV or mobile while eating. Notice all the foods on your plate, how they look, how they smell. Eat each bite slowly, savouring and enjoying every bite.
  3. Eat slowly :
    When you sit to eat, see the time. Give yourself minimum 20 minutes to finish your meal without any interruption.
  4. If you use food to comfort yourself or to cope with stressful or negative emotions, learn new ways of coping and problem solving. Meet a health psychologist who can best help you identify and change the dysfunctional coping mechanisms. 

Mrs. Kaehalee Shinde 
Psychologist and Psychotherapist MA(Clin Psy), RECBT Albert Ellis Institute - New York, USA, Certified Bariatric Counselor - AABC (USA)

Director : Peace of Mind - Holistic Health Services
Health Psychologist & Behavioural Medicine Specialist - DOSS
Honorary Health Officer (Counselling) - SRPF Group 2
Clinical Psychotherapist - Symbiosis Centre of Health Care 

Member -
American Psychological Association (Reg No. 47489926)
British Psychological Society
Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists


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