Are you eating away your feelings?

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Author: Blanca Connelly

Emotional eating may be a concept that you, and most people, are familiar with. Research increasingly shows that eating is often used as an emotion regulation strategy for tackling painful emotions. In other words, when people don’t have the appropriate tools to confront difficult feelings, they often turn to food for comfort or alleviation. The consequence of this is that food becomes a channel for dealing with unpleasant emotions. However, the temporary “comfort” is often followed by feelings of guilt or shame, creating further anxiety and excessive eating. If you´re looking to stop this cycle, the first step is understanding why it may be happening. This article sheds light on the mechanisms behind emotional eating and practical strategies for confronting it.

The iceberg

The notion of emotional eating brings us to the analogy of the iceberg that’s often used in the world of psychology. On the surface of the iceberg, we may see maladaptive eating patterns, such as emotional eating, unhealthy food choices, binging, or restricting. However, underneath the iceberg, is a whole internal world that´s crucial to attend to. This internal world may be marked by sadness, anxiety, anger, insecurities, low self-esteem, body image issues, etc. It´s crucial to “look inwards” and pay attention to what´s happening under the surface; only then can one address the external (surface level) manifestations of it.

Conscious eating and emotion regulation

So, psychological jargon aside, we´ve now established that what´s happening internally is likely responsible for your emotional eating. At this point, you may be wondering, what can I do about it? Research shows that “conscious eating” is key. Simply put, conscious eating consists of being mindful of the food you consume. It involves paying close attention to how you feel mentally and physically before, during, and after eating. Clinical trials have shown significant improvements in eating regulation (i.e., controlling eating behaviors) when conscious eating is practiced. Moreover, conscious eating has been associated with reduced depression and improved overall psychological wellbeing. If you want to practice conscious eating, try thinking about the following:  

1. Before eating:

How are you feeling emotionally right now?

Did something happen today that may be influencing this moment?

Are you hungry (physical hunger) or looking for comfort (emotional hunger)?

If you´re unsure how to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger, the Mayo Clinic, highlights the following differences:

Emotional hunger
Appears suddenly
Crave specific foods
Feel full but not satisfied
Feel guilt or anxiety after eating
Physical hunger
Notice gradually
Open to different foods
Can easily stop eating once full
Feel content after eating

2. During eating:

  • Eat slowly and pay attention to how you feel while doing so
  • Engage your senses: How does it taste? How does it smell? What does it look like? Do you like the colors? What is the texture like? How is the flavor?
  • Listen to your physical hunger cues and try to stop eating before feeling full  

3. After eating:

  • Check in again with yourself and how you´re feeling after the meal: do you feel satisfied? Did you enjoy the eating experience? Do you feel guilty, anxious or at peace? Why? Keep in mind that the why is important to discovering what´s underneath your iceberg
  • Try to notice the effects certain foods may have on you both mentally and physically; consider avoiding certain foods that aren’t working well for you

While these practices may seem simple, conscious eating can help replace automatic thoughts and reactions, that lead to emotional eating, with more mindful, healthier responses. Keep in mind that if hunger isn’t the problem, food is likely not the solution. Understanding and identifying the difference between physical and emotional hunger is fundamental to preventing emotional eating. Try to pay attention to what emotion you´re feeling, label it, and acknowledge it. This process is crucial, not only for tackling emotional eating, but for understanding yourself better. As said by psychological pioneer Carl Jung, “Who looks outside, dreams, who looks inside, awakens.”

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