The Dangers of Emotional Eating

Step away from the biscuits!  

If you find yourself running to the fridge and/or biscuit cupboard when you are feeling angry, sad, anxious or frustrated, then you are one of the thousands of people who would be classified as an emotional eater. Emotional eating is defined as ‘those who overeat in response to negative emotional arousal’. In other words, emotional eaters are those people who turn to food in an attempt to control and cope with negative feelings and thoughts, at times when their emotions have become negatively affected.  If this describes you, then it’s great you have identified this behaviour in yourself, because many emotional eaters don’t even realise they are doing it.  

The fact that our emotions influence our eating patterns and behaviours, often in a negative way, is not a new concept, however exactly how and why this happens is still being researched.  We do know that different emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, fear etc. have all been shown to have varying effects on eating behaviour patterns and one emotion is not usually felt in isolation, but can be accompanied by many others. It can therefore be difficult to determine exactly what emotion is causing us to emotionally eat.  You may or may not be surprised to know that it is actually women who are more predisposed to emotional eating behaviors during times of stress, compared with men. So why exactly is emotional eating a dangerous pattern to fall into and what can be done to minimize it?

Why is emotional eating bad for you? 

We are all guilty at times of reaching for foods to comfort us through an emotional time, whether it be a stressful day at work, an argument with a friend or family member, or even when we are experiencing low self-esteem. If done occasionally or in moderation, this type of eating behaviour is not necessarily problematic, however when it is continually used as a coping mechanism or when food is constantly being relied upon as an emotional crutch, it is then when this eating behaviour falls into the ‘danger zone’. 

The dangers of emotional eating can not only have physical effects on health, but also have a huge impact on our emotional wellbeing and psychological state too. If you are a parent who themselves is an emotional eater, then this has been shown to have a negative influence on your own children’s eating behaviours too and therefore has a direct impact upon their health, wellbeing and future eating behaviours. So what specifically are the dangers of emotional eating?

Weight gain & obesity – The link between emotional eating and weight gain is actually not as simple as it may sound. You may think that emotional eaters are always going to be more overweight compared to non-emotional eaters, however this is not always the case.  As women have been shown to be the sex that are the biggest emotional eaters, you may also therefore think that women are generally more overweight than men, but again this is not actually the case, with more men being overweight than women (74% Vs 64% in the UK). However despite this, we do know that generally over the long term, those people that are emotional eaters, are more predisposed to weight gain. One of the reasons for this, is that when emotional eaters experience heightened emotions, the type of food they choose is not of the healthy variety. We also know that some people who are emotional eaters can also be ‘uncontrolled eaters’, and thus can end up consuming far more calories on a regular basis, which inevitably leads to an increase in weight. 

Increased negative emotions  -  It is important to remember that the process of emotional eating does not actually ‘fix’ how we feel, for example if we are feeling sad and we eat a huge slab of chocolate cake, we do not feel less sad after eating it. In fact, we can often feel worse after turning to food because we can be left with other emotions such as shame, guilt and even depression, which can then induce further eating that leads to a never ending cycle that’s difficult to break. Emotional eaters often use food as a distraction mechanism, merely to avoid dealing with their feelings and emotions at the time they occur. The process of eating does not erase our feelings. Whether we eat just one slice of cake, or the entire thing, our emotions will not improve and will very often leave us feeling much worse. 

Mindless eating – Emotional eating causes mindlesseating, which over the long term, can have a range of implications on health and weight and not in a good away. Mindless eating is when we make food choices or engage in eating behaviours that we are not even aware we are doing. In other words we don’t consciously think about what we are doing, we just do it.   During times of heightened emotions, emotional eaters do not think clearly or objectively about the food choices they make or the eating behaviours they engage in. When a person eats in response to emotions, they are not typically aware of what they are doing, which is different when compared to eating in response to actual hunger, when our brain is more actively engaged in the decision making processes involved in food choice. Emotional eaters can therefore end up eating a lot more calories, as well as making wrong and unhealthy food choices. 

Negatively impacting your children’s eating behaviours – You may think that your emotional eating habits are only effecting you, however if you have children then you would be wrong. Relationship with food is formed from a very early age and even before the child is five, they begin to mimic eating patterns, behaviours and food choices that they see modelled by their parents. The classic phrase of ‘learning by example’ is never truer than here! If a parent is an emotional eater and exhibits other emotional eating behaviours, the child inevitably picks up on these and adopts those patterns for themselves, which as they age, also become an integral part of their own eating behaviours.  The cycle then starts again……unless these patterns and behaviours change.

Strategies for tacking emotional eating 

Recognising hunger – Many of us are guilty of eating when we are not actually physically hungry and this is especially true for emotional eaters. They eat to cope and not because they feel hungry. In fact, many of us can just reach for food because it is easily available or just happens to be there and we never actually stop to question whether we are really feeling and experiencing hunger at that specific time. If we did stop to ask ourselves this, then more often than not, the answer to the question ‘am I actually hungry right now’ would be a resounding NO! Of course the question that then follows this is ‘why have I got a half-eaten slice of cake in my hand then?’ To avoid this happening, as obvious as it may sound, one good mechanism for resolving emotional eating habits is to question your hunger when you feel yourself reaching for food. If you can be truthful to yourself at this time and actually realise you are not hungry, then your brain starts to make a healthier connection with food and can help break the habit of associating negative emotions with eating. 

Distraction – As discussed above, one reason emotional eaters turn to food is because they use it as a distraction mechanism so they don’t have to face their emotions. One way of therefore reducing emotional eating patterns is to find another distraction, so at the time when emotions are getting the better of you, instead of reaching for food you instead reach for another distraction. This can be anything you want, including going for a walk, putting on a favourite film, phoning a friend or even reading the dictionary, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it doesn’t involve food!

Eliminating cravings - Sometimes the cravings for certain foods can be so intense that we just can’t think of anything else. Graphic images of chocolate cake, ice cream, biscuits and crisps (insert your emotional food weakness here) can dance through our mind in such a torturous fashion that we can almost taste it. When it’s got to this point, even a well-executed distraction may fail, but there is one thing that can help and that is………….eating something minty or cleaning your teeth. Consuming a mint or something minty, can almost always stop the craving for something salty or sweet, mainly because mint is such an intense flavour and anything eaten after it doesn’t taste great anyway. You can even have a go at making your own mint yogurt to keep in the fridge for the ‘emotional eating emergency’. Take some plain Delamere goat’s yogurt and chop up a good handful of fresh mint leaves.  Add these to the yogurt, mix together well and have one or two spoonfuls when your emotions are giving you cravings. Mint is also an appetite suppressant and studies have shown that even the scent of it can reduce cravings in people, so give it a go, you have nothing to lose. 

Consuming a mint or something minty, can almost always stop the craving for something salty or sweet. You can even have a go at making your own mint yogurt to keep in the fridge for the ‘emotional eating emergency’.
mint-yogurt.jpg

Become emotionally comfortable – Most people who are emotional eaters, are not comfortable with feeling or experiencing the range of emotions that everyone experiences at one time or another. If you are someone who doesn’t face emotions head on, then make a concerted effort to start addressing them and becoming more in tune and comfortable with how you feel, instead of using food as an emotional sticking plaster. 

With Christmas fast approaching, now is the time when both food and heightened emotions, of all kinds, are in abundance. There is no need to not enjoy all the wonderful Christmas food available, however just make sure you are tucking in because you’re hungry and not because your emotions are telling you to.

 RESOURCES:

  • Appetite, 2013. Emotional eating and food intake after sadness and joy

  • Appetite, 2011. Parenting styles, parental response to child emotion, and family emotional responsiveness are related to child emotional eating.

  • Obesity, 2012. Selected eating behaviours and excess body weight: a systematic review

  • Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2011. Emotional eating, rather than lifestyle behaviour, drives weight gain in a prospective study in 1562 Employees

  • Appetite, 2012.What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat

  • Eating Behaviours, 2012. Do parental feeding practices moderate the relationships between impulsivity and eating in children?

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