by:  Ratna Hema Mohan, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

What would you do to feel better when you are faced with one of these situations?

  • You had a fight with your best friend?
  • It’s the day before a very important exam… and you are cramming.
  • You break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend, and you feel sad and lonely?

Would you:

a) Speak to your mother, brother or someone close to you about how you feel and have a long comforting talk.

… or …

b) The moment you get home, you run to the refrigerator and have a cake, or ice cream, or left over pizza?

If your answer is yes to b then you may have a tendency towards emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

The body needs the nutrition that food provides to survive, the excess foods we eat are stored for later as fat. Emotional eating is when we use food to cope with our feelings such as boredom, fear, anger, sadness, etc. It’s when we think food will fill an emotional void and make us feel better when we are feeling bad.

Eating frequently for emotional reasons causes many problems. They range from physical complications such as obesity and health issues to emotional and psychological discomfort such as feelings of guilt, depression, loss of control, etc.

So, how do you differentiate between emotional hunger and real physical hunger?

  • Usually when it’s emotional the urge is sudden and you want a specific type of food, usually, sweats, chips, pizza basically the dangerous “junk foods”. When you have “real” hunger you will want to eat any number of foods and they usually satisfy your hunger.
  • With physical hunger once you are full you usually stop eating, with emotional hunger you seem to be a bottomless pit, in other words, you tend to overeat.
  • If you feel guilty after you have eaten it’s usually a sign of emotional eating, if you feel satisfied and good then you have eaten for the “right” reasons.

Emotional eating can become a dangerous problem. If it is not controlled, foods can cause addictions just like alcohol and drugs, food will control you instead of you controlling your food.

Here are a few tips to help you manage your emotional eating:

  1. When you feel an urge to eat try doing something different go out for a walk, drink some water, got to the gym, swim, call a friend. Try to change your focus from food to some other activity.
  2. When you get hungry instead of automatically going for food, pause and reflect on how you are feeling, how did your day go, what are you experiencing at that moment: are you bored, angry, lonely? Even positive emotions such as happiness can sometimes cause emotional eating. Identifying your emotions helps calm your hunger urges.
  3. Start journaling, write down what you feel before, during, and after you eat something. Try recognizing the emotions that cause you to eat and start identifying the patterns between how you feel and when you eat. You can use this information to make better choices next time.
  4. Find different ways to cope with stress such as meditation, breathing exercises, Pilates, yoga, etc.
  5. If the urge to eat is too overwhelming and difficult to control get some help. A psychotherapist can help you talk through your feelings; nutritionist can help you with having a healthy diet or a trainer can help you get you started on an exercise routine. The idea is to find a way not to allow your emotional eating to get out of control.

It’s important to remember that emotional eating is something we do when we are bored, happy or sad. It might be a bag of chips or a steak, but whatever the food choice, learning how to control it and using moderation are key.