Does emotional eating help you cope when you are overwhelmed with stress or anger?
The relationship between emotional eating and our health goals is complicated.
“Not everyone uses food to cope. Food is ideally a fuel for our body, not a way to medicate our feelings. What is your tendency?” Coach Georgianne
Emotional eating is a term used for people who turn to the fridge when feelings or emotions seem overwhelming. Most often, these are feelings that people want to relieve, like anger, sadness, boredom, or stress.
Emotional eating happens for everyone sometimes, and for other people, it can happen on a regular basis. Other people tend to skip meals when they are stressed.
The relationship between food and emotions is complicated, and each of us has our own tendency and method.
At the end of a stressful day at work, we are told by advertisers that we should eat candy. We should do this, they say, because no one wants to be around us when we are hungry and angry or “Hangry”.
Emotional eating is complicated because it is associated with a wide spectrum of causes and reactions. Eating a single candy bar on the way home from work could be seen as a simple version of emotional eating. Perhaps you have rushed around all day and have not eaten enough. Perhaps your blood sugar has crashed and you truly need calories right now!
At the other end of the spectrum, many people struggle with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another type of disordered eating. These more extreme situations can cause serious health problems and may require the help of compassionate, expert medical teams. As a holistic health coach, I have talked to hundreds of people who feel prompted to turn to food for both difficult and celebratory reasons…even when they are not hungry at all! I include myself in this behavior.
Does everyone have emotional needs?
Every human has needs, and sometimes, they are not met. Some are basic human needs and others are optional or perhaps even “earned” as we live our lives, grow and thrive. When our human needs are not being met on a regular basis, we feel stress. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that the basic human need for food must be met before we can move on to things like seeking an education, feeling secure, or making new friends.
Beyond getting our basic physiological needs met, many of us can then look for ways to have comfort, feelings of safety, as well as seeking our right livelihood. No one’s life is perfect. When it comes to friendships, achievements, and peak experiences, we can still feel prompted to use emotional eating as a coping tool.
I need help that truly works!
The message is loud and clear! Donuts work. Simple sugars digest quickly and supply our brains with a rush of dopamine, and that is calming. The food industry knows this and many foods exist for the simple purpose of helping humans “get through” their day.
Have you experienced a chaotic reaction to life that prompts you to eat even when your body is not hungry? I know that I have. Sometimes, the habit of eating a couple of cookies at 3 pm can become a habit that’s difficult to break.
Holistic health practices can be helpful to many people who use emotional eating to cope.
Emotional eating can be released as a coping tool! There are a variety of techniques for changing behavior and thoughts that have nothing to do with donuts. If you are concerned that emotional eating may be derailing your attempts at healthy eating, consider these holistic health options that can help you avoid using food to manage your feelings:
- Use mindfulness and deep breathing. Take a moment or two to decide if your thoughts of food are physical or emotional. Before opening the fridge or grabbing a snack as you pay for gas, stop for a moment and take a slow, deep breath. Ask yourself if you are truly hungry, or are you craving comfort? My Solution Starter community members jot down their feelings in a Food & Activity Journal. This helps them to feel the difference between the need for fuel and the need for a nap.
- Think about your Blood Sugar Balance. If you are having strong feelings about finding food ‘right now!”, think about when you last ate. Did you last eat food that was a combination of healthy carbs, protein, and fat? If you have only been eating low-quality carbs today, what is your body telling you about Blood Sugar Balance? Body awareness can help you to make a choice other than grabbing the easy-to-reach junk food.
- Be proactive about your stress coping behaviors. When we walk, do yoga, practice meditation, or dance while we garden, we are choosing to ratchet down stress before it overwhelms us. Grab a friend and walk in the park! Load your phone with music that you love. Call your best friend and chat. Each of these options can help you ignore emotional eating.
- Ban junk food and sugar bombs in your high-stress zones. Do you remember scenes from movies where the frazzled boss pulls his whiskey stash out of his desk drawer? Yep, having a stash of unhealthy food and drink makes it so easy to over-do. Think of other, non-food options for your work desk or car console! Chewing gum is often used in this way, and fitness tools like squeezing a stress ball could work, too.
- Share your experiences with someone you trust. Not everyone can find relief for emotional eating by purchasing a pack of gum. I honor everyone who struggles in the midst of trying dozens of coping tools to replace comfort food. When we share our situation with others, sometimes they cannot relate because their personality or tendencies are different than ours. I encourage everyone who feels stuck to talk to a trusted professional who specializes in food/mood issues. The National Eating Disorders Association has a directory of providers and support groups on its website.