An introduction to emotional eating: how to recognise it, and your 10 point plan to deal with it

Updated: Jan 27

This blog covers:

What it is

• How to recognise it

• Your 10 point plan to start dealing with it

What Emotional Eating is

Very simply, it’s eating as a response to an emotion as opposed to a physical need to eat. It can be positive, such as in celebration or reward for something, or something negative where it is known as comfort eating, or it can be more neutral, such as boredom. It's a common issue, and most of us do it from time to time, but it's when it starts to affect our health, such as causing us to put on weight, or stops us from losing it, that it can be a problem. It particularly has the potential to be a problem for many people at the moment, with the worries of the pandemic, and the boredom brought on by the restrictions we face on what we can do.

Eating gives us pleasure and so when we are eating emotionally, we use food as a distraction, or a reward, as a way of responding to whatever emotion has triggered it. But of course, the benefit is only temporary or even only fleeting.

When we emotionally eat, we often over-eat, and choose foods that give us the most pleasure - often foods that are high in a particular combination of sugar, fat and salt, and can be savoury or sweet.

This particular combination is known to draw us to eat more of it, because of the impact it has on our brain chemistry, which creates a desire for more, and because it’s not actually dealing with the problem, we’re not satisfied. An interesting suggestion I read recently by Dr Michael Moseley, is that the sugar and fat ratio of many foods closely resembles that of breast milk, and therefore is no wonder that we crave or seek it. Furthermore, the ideal combination of sugar, far and salt that makes us want more has been coined the 'bliss point'.

And of course, when we’re done with our emotional eating event, even if it was a positive event, it can set off a whole load of negative emotions, including guilt, shame, anger, and disgust with ourselves for losing control, and the situation that led us to overeat hasn’t gone away, or has been replaced with a whole new set of negative emotions, and the cycle can start all over again, especially as we might well have gained weight, which only serves to make us feel more miserable. And so we often comfort eat some more.

It’s also a habit. A learned behaviour, something we do in a pattern. We are triggered by something, and we respond the same way every time as it’s our normal way of dealing with it.

But why do we do it? It makes no sense!

According to psychological theories and evidence, we make logical and rational decisions with the part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex.

However, we also have a more primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, also known as the reptilian brain, that is responsible for looking after our survival.

It is thought that these two parts of our brain are often in conflict when it comes to managing our behaviour. The limbic system is responsible for protecting us, and ensuring our survival, so it is very powerful, it does not behave logically, and often makes us overreact, as it initiates the ‘fright, flight or freeze’ response in us when we feel threatened, in order to protect us.

The limbic system is thought to be responsible for our emotional responses so when we find ourselves behaving in ways that are contrary to common sense, such as overeating when we want to be slim, it is often being driven by our limbic system, rather than our prefrontal cortex, as a means of protection, or trying to make us feel better.

As our emotions drive many of our behaviours, especially when we're not really paying attention, it is no surprise that if we like food we will reach for it when experiencing various emotions. So we will eat to celebrate and we will eat when we feel sad and need comforting, or are feeling stressed or worried. And this becomes a habit, one it is incredibly difficult to break. It might have started in childhood, when we were given sweets or treats when we had hurt ourselves or been upset by something. And of course many cultures use food as a means to celebrate, and life events and family get-togethers (when we can have them) often revolve around food and drink.

But the good news is, just being aware of this, and being aware of when our emotions are driving our behaviour, we can change it.

Knowledge is power, (as long as we use it!) so knowing this gives us back the power over our behaviour. Now, I'm not talking about people who have serious addictions and diagnosed eating disorders, or who have suffered trauma, and who need specialist help to overcome their unhelpful eating behaviours, but for those of us who have basically developed learned behaviours around food that have led us to become, and stay, overweight, this can be a very ground-breaking realisation.

There are some very helpful models and theories which can help us understand what’s going on. Two of my personal favourites are The Chimp Paradox model, by Professor Steve Peters, first published in 2012, and Transactional Analysis, which is an older but equally valid theory, first developed in the 1950s by psychiatrist Dr Eric Berne. They are not specifically about emotional eating, but can be applied very well to it, as well as many other areas of our lives. I particularly like them because they are simple and easy to apply and remember.

Both of these approaches consider that there are different parts of us, or states, that we are in when we think and behave, and that we can move ourselves between them to take control of our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviour.

The Chimp Paradox considers the limbic system to be represented by the Chimp, and the pre-frontal cortex by the Human. There is a third element, the Computer, where information is stored and that both the Chimp and the Human use for reference when deciding how to behave. Professor Peters explains how we can tame our chimp so that it acts in ways that will benefit us rather than hinder us.

The ‘Paradox’ comes from the suggestion that it can be our best friend or our worst enemy. For example, by harnessing our emotions for positive things, like building a strong vision of what we want to achieve (such as what our lives will be like when we stop emotional eating have lost weight) we can get it to work in our favour, and by restraining it when it is causing us to over-react and act irrationally, we can prevent it from hindering us and stop it from being our worst enemy.

With Transactional Analysis, there are different ego states, with the parent and child states being emotional, and the adult being the rational, logical one and it's very helpful when considering the inner voice that we use when we talk to ourselves. I am presenting a very tiny portion of it here.

So if our internal voice is saying, "there there, have some cake, it will make you feel better’ that will be the ‘nurturing parent’ in control. If we say to ourselves, "well I’ve had one piece, I may as well have them all now" that will be the ‘petulant child’ in control.

If we just stop for a moment and examine what’s going on, we can move ourselves into the ‘adult’ state, and remind ourselves that actually the cake won’t really make us feel better, and actually having all the pieces will be of no benefit to us whatsoever.

In doing so, we can actually take back control and avoid it altogether, and choose an alternative, more beneficial course of action, such as a long soak in a hot bath.

Both these models are worth reading up on, to get more insight into your behaviour. See the links at the end of this blog.

How to recognise emotional eating

When you get the urge to eat, really pay attention to whether you are eating because you are physically hungry, or whether you are feeling something else, and have been triggered to eat by something that has happened or is in your environment, that has made you feel sad, happy, worried, stressed and your typical response is to eat.

Do you know what physical hunger feels like?

Do you know what emotional hunger feels like?

They can feel quite similar. If you struggle with this, then spend some time testing yourself in different situations and notice how you feel. Maybe keep a journal. Start to recognise the patterns of what happened, and what you did in response.

Or maybe you already know and are fully aware of when you eat emotionally but feel unable to stop yourself. Then see your 10 point plan in the next section.

One way to tell if you are physically or emotionally hungry is by examining what food you feel like eating. If you would eat almost anything, then it’s likely to be physical hunger. If you only fancy certain foods, foods that you 'crave', then it’s likely to be emotional.

What to do about it? Your 10 point plan

The good news is that because it is a learned behaviour, we can unlearn it! Here are 10 things you can do to tackle it.

1. Understand what is going on inside your brain. Your limbic system is leading your response to the situation. Just knowing this can reduce its power over you. Read up on the resources I mentioned or find some others that resonate with you.

2. Pay attention to what’s happening and understand your triggers. Before eating, ask yourself "what is going on around me that might be influencing my desire to eat". A big one for me is when I am studying or working hard on something. I get the sudden urge to snack, as a distraction from making me have to do the hard work. I know now that it is because I feel threatened by it, and my limbic system is trying to protect me from it. But just knowing that means I can take alternative action.

3. Recognise that you have a choice of how you respond to emotions. Take back control by using your pre-frontal cortex. Rationally analyse what is going on, and make a decision about what you are going to do that is going to actually help you to deal with the situation without resorting to eating when you are not hungry.

4. Recognise and continually remind yourself that eating is not the answer to whatever is going on. Put reminders up if you need to, in places that you will see them. On the fridge, on your phone screensaver, on your computer wallpaper, in your wallet or purse.

5. Confront your limiting beliefs that you can’t stop yourself. That is something you have told yourself so often that you believe it. We ALL have choices about what we do. I tell myself that nothing or no one MAKES me put food in my mouth. I make the decision to do that. By becoming aware that we have choices we can take back power and control. Remember who’s in the driving seat and what it is that you REALLY want.

6. Keep a journal to identify patterns between situations, emotions and eating behaviours, and record how you feel after you have emotionally eaten. Be clear about how unpleasant it has made you feel, and how it hasn't helped the situation, so you can use this information when tempted to do it again.

7. Find new ways of responding to the situation. Again, thinking logically and rationally what can you do to address the situation that WILL actually really help. If you are worried, what can you do to constructively help you. If you are bored, think about what your options are, and what opportunities are there to do or try different things. Talk to people or search on the internet to get some ideas if you are stuck.

8. Develop strategies to use as alternative behaviours when you feel the urge to eat in response to an emotion. Have them ready so that they can swing into action without too much thought, and they will develop as new habits.

9. Get some support to help you deal with the issues that are triggering you to eat emotionally – talk to your friends, family, GP, counselling, coaching, or support groups. There is so much available online at the moment.

10. Don’t stop paying attention. Make that your new habit. It really can be the key to unlocking your self-control.

If you found this helpful why not check out my top 10 tips for eating less without dieting, for some tips on how to manage your food intake in general, which may help with reducing how much you eat, including when you eat emotionally. Also read my last blog on how to stay motivated during another lockdown.

If you need a bit more support why not check out my e-book, Preparing for Successful Weight Loss, where I cover all the things that need to be in place to lose weight and keep it off, and help you uncover what might be holding you back, and overcome it.

See these links for the resources for further reading that I mentioned:

Transactional Analysis

The Chimp Paradox

Until next time....

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