How-to: Stop Emotional Eating

Earlier this week, we dove into sugar addiction, looking at how we can get back on track after letting ourselves go the first two weeks of isolation. We discussed certain tricks to get back that drive and motivation we all had prior to the world being put on pause. Following that post, I also received mentions about emotional eating and how food has become a release for many of you; a release from the stress, the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the boredom that comes with being inside the house at all hours of the day. Don’t worry. You’re not the only one that has given in to emotional eating. Many people struggle with emotional eating, even outside of this pandemic. It’s something that can easily become a habit over time, as your body begins to crave those happy hormones released after eating some tasty meal or dessert. For that split second, it seems as if everything is back to being OK in the world. I get that!

We have goals to reach, though, dear! We can’t keep giving it to habits we created out of emotional discomfort. That’s where this post comes in.

Why Does Emotional Eating Happen

Briefly: emotional eating corresponds to the tendency toward overeating in response to negative emotions (1). Emotional eating has been linked with eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorders, as both eating disorders link, in some way, emotional discomfort with eating. Although it may have been linked with dangerous eating disorders, it does not mean that having such tendencies is a diagnosis for an eating disorder. If not controlled, yes, emotional eating can lead to more eating disorders, but we’re here to stop that train before it leaves the station, eh.

Detailed: when you can’t seem to find the words to explain the emotions you’re going through, negative feelings in this case, people of all ages, shapes, and sizes tend to dive into sugary and fatty foods to release those emotions. Sometimes, this emotional eating leads to overeating, as your body craves the dopamine high released after eating sugar-filled foods (2). Research has proven that there is a reward system in the brain that activates when you digest highly fatty or sugary foods. It works in such a way that certain hormones (leptin) and neurotransmitter systems (dopamine and serotonin, known as the happy chemicals released in the brain), are released to give you an overall good feeling. Therefore, it’s no surprise that overeating tendencies are linked with emotional eating, especially you’re feeling anxious, sad, bored, angry, or confused. All feelings that are hard to vocalize on the daily, or they are feelings that may be completely shut down in these times.

Okay, now what?

Before diving into how to stop emotional eating, let me just warn the reader (that’s you) that all advice given hereafter is from a certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist, not a mental health professional. Any and all actions that follow an emotional impulse or addiction should be treated by a healthcare professional, therefore please consult with yours before taking any action.

There is a way to break free from emotional eating. It won’t be necessarily easy, but it’s doable. You may feel frustrated as you go through the next steps towards freeing yourself from the connection you created with food and emotions. It’s okay. Take it one day and one step at a time.

  1. Vocalize Your Feelings: this doesn’t mean that you have to talk to someone. I understand that not everyone is comfortable voicing their emotions, fears, or anxiety. If you do have someone who can listen to you and give you a healthy helping hand, do it. It will help take away that ball of emotions you may feel in your chest every now and again. If you can’t, write it down. Take a pen and paper, write down what you’re feeling right now, without leaving anything behind. Write your fears, your anxiety, your anger, and the reason you’re feeling this way. Let it all out on the paper. Rip up the piece of paper after and throw it in the garbage. This will help take the emotion out of your heart and brain, where it just keeps on building over time, until it controls you. Instead of diving into a pot of ice cream, let it all out first. See how you feel after you talk to someone or write it out: do you still feel the need to bury your emotions in food?
  2. Get moving: I know, I know. You may not feel like getting out of bed when your heart is mid-palpitations. I know. You don’t have to go for a run, although I’d recommend it, but I’ll get back to that in a second. Simply moving around the room or the house will help your brain focus on something other than the thoughts going around inside. Walking up and down the stairs will help you release pant up energy. It will literally get your mind off of things. I know it’s very tempting to just sit and wallow sometimes, but we’re here to change that habit, right? So, let’s try something new. If you can, do go outside for a run or a quick workout. Working out is a great way to release serotonin in a healthy way.
  3. Eat Something Healthy: if you really can’t seem to fight the urge to dive into food (it happens), opt for something healthier. You now know that fatty foods activate that reward system in your brain, use that to your advantage when you can’t seem to get food off your mind. Eat something that’s higher in fat but that won’t damage your progress so much. Some great options: nuts, peanut butter, full egg, olive oil (stir fry some vegetables), red meat. By doing so, you can eat your dinner and trick your brain into activating its reward system so that all negative emotions are overpowered by the positive neurotransmitters released in your brain.

Most importantly, take it one day at a time. Breaking habits isn’t an easy feat. There will be days where you can’t seem to control your emotional eating tendencies. It happens, and it’s not the end of the world. One bad day doesn’t take away all the progress you’ve made in a week or month. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Your brain create those neural pathways for a reason, so it won’t just break them after one day of going against it. It takes 21 days to break any habit, so start with one day at a time and before you know it, you’ll be 21 days deep.

Download the calendar below and X every day you go through without emotional eating. When you give in, put a heart. You’ll see that at the end of the week and month, the X’s will overpower the hearts, even if you have more hearts than you do X’s.

Hopefully, we’ll all be out of this isolation in time for summer. Ready to rock our summer bodies and show all the hard work we’ve been putting on improving ourselves!

Stay safe.

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