Do you use food to change your mood – to avoid feeling sad, lonely, disappointed, angry, or ashamed? Then you’ve engaged in comfort eating (aka emotional eating). Don’t worry – most people use food in this way some of the time!
Emotional/comfort eating becomes a significant problem when you’re using food to escape from real life on a regular basis. Food, whether overeating or undereating it, can be a distraction from a whole lot of things you’d rather avoid – negative thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, distressing memories, or a sense of inner emptiness that crops up whenever you sit still for a few minutes. Eating, or restricting what you eat, is a relatively quick, simple and cheap way to hide from what’s going on for you internally. Do you recognise yourself in either of the types below?
Emotional eaters eat when they’re not hungry. Usually the food they eat is highly sensorily stimulating – some combo of crunchy, chewy, salty and sweet all rolled in together.
In the short term, the sensory stimulation distracts you from more negative experiences. But once it’s gone, you’re left overfull, over tired and with more of what you’re trying to avoid – negative emotions like shame, or self-critical thoughts. You end up feeling worse and to escape these feelings – you eat too much again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Binge/purge eaters choose a different route to escape the feelings of being overfull and overtired. They use laxatives or vomit up the food they’ve eaten. But the end result is the same – they feel ashamed of their behaviour, and not long after, to escape these feelings, they’ll be overeating again.
At its most extreme, over eating can become either Binge Eating Disorder or Bulimia Nervosa.
Restriction/ Under Eating
People who overly restrict their diet are using food in an unhealthy way too, but the mechanism is different to comfort eating. Restrictors are people who don’t eat, even when their body is telling them they need fuel. Restrictors feel good about themselves when they deny their body what it actually needs. When they eat normal amounts of a wide variety of foods, their body is satisfied. This allows them to become aware of their negative emotions and thoughts, and these soon feel overwhelming. To control these thoughts and feelings, under eaters will restrict food until being exhausted is the dominant feeling, and thoughts of pride regarding their willpower dominate. Eventually, obsessive thoughts about food replace the negative thoughts they were having about themselves as people – until they eat again, and the cycle begins anew.
At its most extreme, under eating becomes Anorexia Nervosa.
I think I’m an emotional eater. What can I do?
Whether you over or under eat, the key to changing poor eating habits is mindfulness. There are several areas which need to be developed in order to bring your eating habits, and your emotions, back into balance.
Before you do anything, you’ll need to learn how to better tolerate/change negative emotions. Otherwise, no matter what else changes, as soon as you feel uncomfortable, you’ll revert to old habits.
To learn more about how to tolerate negative emotions, watch our how-to video about Mindfulness of Emotions.
You’ll also need to figure out some other ways to distract yourself when negative emotions arise. Check out our article on how to de-stress in sixty seconds or less, or if you’ve got more time, then here’s our article on self-care. For a lot of people, emotional eating kicks in during the evening, when you’ve got a whole day’s stress built up, so this is when you’ll need to be armed with your best strategies.
Remember to take into account that whatever you replace eating/not eating with, needs to be something relatively quick, simple and cheap to engage in – otherwise it’s too tempting to go back to emotional eating, which is all of the above.
Listen to your stomach, not your heart or head
To retrain bad eating habits, you need to let your stomach, not your emotions (heart) or thoughts (head) decide when, how much, and what to eat. While there are many tricks to learning how to really listen to your body to figure out what it needs, the starting point is to use a hunger scale to learn whether or not you need to be eating. Have a look at the hunger scale, and how to use it to change emotional eating, in this article.
Change your relationship to your thoughts
For a lot of people, negative thoughts are persistent, unable to be ignored, and create feelings which are too big for them to handle successfully with either mindfulness or distraction. It doesn’t matter how good you are at tolerating emotions, if you keep generating negative feelings by the way you think, eventually they’ll become overwhelming, and you’ll find yourself comfort eating to cope.
If you suspect your thinking processes are unhelpful and are contributing to the amount of negative emotions you feel, you’ll benefit from learning more helpful ways of using your mind.
A basic, practical way to begin to change your relationship with your thoughts is the AND method. Every time you catch yourself thinking a negative thought, add on an extra piece of information that makes the thought less negative and more self-supporting.
For example: ‘That was a really dumb mistake, AND everybody makes mistakes – this was just one of mine.
Or ‘I feel so horrible right now, AND I’m strong enough to withstand that feeling until it passes.’
Learn how to communicate better with others
If big emotions remain despite your efforts in all the above areas, it usually means that you’re comfort eating because you’re struggling to express yourself effectively to others. Feelings tend to fester and grow when they’re not expressed, and if you’ve never developed this skill, then you’ll find that even mundane, routine events can have you storing up your feelings until they’re huge and feel impossible to cope with or contain.
Communication skills can be learnt, the challenge is to keep practising them until they feel natural.
The most basic form of communicating is to tell people how you’re feeling – any why – more regularly than you usually do. Start with sharing a positive emotion just once a day with someone you trust, and then slowly working up to sharing your feelings whenever they change, and whether they’re positive or negative.
If you work on all the above areas, you’ll naturally become better at eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you’re not. You’ll no longer need to rely on emotional eating to fix your problems. You’ll have a range of other strategies that are more effective than food in moderating emotions and you’ll find your emotions aren’t as intense as they used to be.