The ups and downs of emotional eating

We’ve all heard the term emotional eating but what is it and what are the ups and downs?

Emotional eating is a term used to describe any sort of eating that occurs when hunger is not present. This so-called eating behavior could be induced by stress, boredom, loneliness, frustration or just purely out of habit. Despite the tub of ice cream providing immediate satisfaction – emotional eating is more likely to cause long-term harm than good!

Photo by Tim Samuel on

What does emotional eating do to our bodies?

When we eat through hunger – we are responding to our natural body process of increased appetite hormones this hormone is referred to as ‘ghrelin’, once released this hormone is responsible for increasing your appetite which in turn makes us seek out food. This is essential for survival and with normal activity and appetite regulation we maintain a healthy weight. 

When we eat –  the presence of the food within our digestive system creates a cascade of chemicals and hormone responses throughout our body – and provides us with a physical response (nutrients and energy for all of our living cells) and as such our body turns off our hunger hormones. Our physical body feels satisfied, our tummies feel full but an emotional response occurs too – as these hormones released create a pleasant emotional feeling. We feel happy and content. 

The interlinked nature of mind and our body and the chemicals and hormones create a positive feedback loop and an ongoing interdependent relationship. We eat and we feel good. So over time – as these good feelings occur – some of us mix up the feelings and the body’s response. Unconsciously when we begin to feel a certain emotion -that we don’t like- we want to erase this feeling – and so when we want to feel good, we eat, as eating creates these feel-good hormones. 

Over time – this becomes a habit.. We have some form of  negative feeling – (boredom, stress, frustration for example)  and this eating becomes our way to satisfy this negative feeling). And the feedback loop becomes stronger and stronger.  The behaviour becomes more ingrained and subconscious and before we know it we are emotionally eating. 

And whilst Hollywood encourages us to grab a spoon and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s to overcome a heartbreak,  this occasional indulgence where you are said to be eating your feelings,  won’t hurt. However –  more often than not emotional eating becomes  a long-term habitual behaviour and is negative to our lives.

The effects of emotional eating 

Unfortunately however there is nothing positive that comes from emotional eating. The only upside is generally the upwards movements of the needle on your bathroom scales or your increased dress size. 

  1. More calories – most often result in you consuming more calories than your body needs for general healthy functioning – resulting in weight gain. And as we all know any sort of body weight above a healthy weight range causes a multitude of cardiovascular health risks – like hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.
  1. Emotional eating only provides a short-term emotional reward – You may feel good (with the chemical release) while stuffing down the whole block of chocolate but quite often there is a whole emotional downward swing of regret self-loathing and self-criticism as you look at the size of the packet (and the calories you have just consume) as it is thrown into the bin. This in turn encourages negative self-esteem

So what are the best ways to stop emotional eating?

Step 1. Recognise if and when you emotionally eat

The first thing to do is to recognise if and when you emotionally eat. This takes a certain level of consciousness and this is the initial tricky part. Over the years we have probably learnt to justify our snacking habits (it was only a leftover piece of toast) and ignore (it wasn’t that big of a spoonful) whilst in reality we are eating when we are not actually hungry.  Even times when we don’t even justify it as we consume it – we just eat it and it is not until afterwards that we really recognise what we have eaten. 

Step 2. Keep a food diary

The next step is to begin keeping a food diary as this may help you identify your eating patterns (time and what you were eating) especially if you are actually hungry at the time that you were eating. The next part and most important part is to now identify the feelings and emotions that you were having at the time. Were you frustrated, bored, lonely, sad or even were you just eating out of habit?  All of these are usually negative emotions that we are trying to block by eating and getting the subsequent feel-good feelings.

Linda Tsiokas – Founder of Beautiful Body Clinics – Fat Freezing Specialists – knows exactly what emotional eating is like. After spending all day with women and discussing their eating behaviours – Linda says “I know for me getting home with the kids after school and the chaos that occurs at this time of the day causes me to feel frustrated (that I’m now the cook, cleaner, referee and taxi service) whilst I would rather be helping my clients at work. I have to remind myself that I am emotionally eating – and stop!  I have a yoga mat in my backyard and just lay on it between 4 and 4.15 and take some time out. I set an alarm so that I don’t forget. This brings me back to the here and now and breaks my normal routine patterns and thinking. I reconnect my subconscious mind to my conscious mind and return to the kids – calm, focused and more aware and in particular more committed to not just eating for the sake of it – out of frustration. This behaviour break pattern really helps me  – to interrupt the emotions and the subsequent behaviour at the time.”

Step 3. Introduce a pattern interrupt. 

Show yourself some love. Once you have identified the times or circumstances that you usually emotionally eat –  find a new pattern. Identify whatever the activity is that creates your particular triggering feelings – and do something mindful for you. Perhaps a quick yoga stretch, or a 5-minute mindfulness meditation when you are feeling overwhelmed/sad/lonely. Any type of self-love activity (whereby you show yourself some respect and recognise yourself and your need for some love) will work. You may walk around the block, take a shower or take some deep breaths.  Anything that changes your usual behaviour and thought patterns will work once you implement them into your old emotional eating routine and disrupt it. 

Step 4. Let the past stay in the past. 

It is also really important that you don’t beat yourself up for your past emotional eating patterns. Perhaps this is the first time you have even heard that the physical consumption of food actually creates an emotional response and calms your mood.  Your amazing body was doing exactly as it should by protecting and supporting you – but perhaps it is time to reconnect to the real emotions and remove food from being the panacea. Perhaps these emotions are painful to recognise but it is only with recognition that you can begin to deal with them rather than stuffing them down with food.

Over time as you reconnect your brain to your emotions and your behaviours you are likely to reduce your emotional eating patterns and best of all your waistline. It is only through awareness. consciousness and these small acts of self love – you will start to remove the need for food to make you feel good. 

It is important to remember that emotional eating can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, or stage of life, and it is a  habit that slowly sneaks up on us. What may have started as an occasional thing becomes more frequent and a less conscious habit. Given how accessible and prominent food is in our lives (social media and in our refrigerators) plus then our body and brain’s chemical reactions to the food consumed it is important not to blame yourself if emotional eating has become a part of your normal behaviour. 

Recognizing that you are emotionally eating is the first step towards rerouting these emotions and implementing better and different behaviours moving forward.

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