PHOTO: Annie Spratt
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
In this post we will talk about what emotional eating is and how to stop it.
What is emotional or anxious eating?
Anxious eating or emotional hunger is the feeling of anxiety that we try to solve or cover with food. However, although we associate anxiety with food, food is not capable of filling the emotional hunger we feel. Quite the contrary, this pattern, although for a moment it works as emotional anesthesia, soon it begins to generate even more negative emotions related to loss of control and guilt and causes the vicious circle to begin. The more anxiety, the more likely we are to feel emotional hunger, and the more emotional eating, the more anxiety.
How to know if it is physical hunger or emotional hunger?
It is very important to realize that food and emotions cannot be totally separated and eating always causes some emotions, just as physical hunger can trigger anxiety. However, when we try to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger, despite creating an artificial division, we are talking about the motive that predominates.
Physical hunger is a sensation that we can locate in the stomach and is not necessarily related to wanting any particular food. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, can be defined as the need to eat more comfort foods (such as carbohydrates) and that is not easily satiated.
How to stop eating emotionally?
When we feel anxiety or another emotion and we are not aware of it or deny ourselves the right to feel it, we look for ways not to feel it. Since eating numbs emotions for a moment, it’s easy to make this connection and start using food to not feel. If we repeat this pattern several times, a habit is created that is increasingly automatic, more ingrained and less conscious.
Therefore, if we want to stop emotional eating, it is key to learn to recognize emotions and give them importance. Also, we would have to do it before we start eating automatically. If the habit of emotional eating is well developed, there is really little mental space to recognize emotions. And we have to expand this mental space. How? By becoming more aware, for example, by practicing mindfulness. We can try to create a new habit of taking a few minutes to think about what we feel and connect with it always before starting to eat and consciously decide if what we feel is solved with food or if there are other solutions.
Another option would be to develop the habit of slowing down eating, eating more mindfully (savoring and not swallowing) and enjoying it more. In this way we gain more space to think while we eat and to enjoy what we are eating, changing the feelings that are created with the experience of eating. In this way, even if we have started eating to calm anxiety, we can end up enjoying the food, feeling satisfaction and stopping the process earlier.
In the case of deciding that hunger is more emotional, the next step would be to learn to process emotions instead of anesthetizing them.
And most importantly, if despite knowing it, you have eaten emotionally, don’t blame yourself. Guilt is what causes a vicious cycle to reproduce. These are negative emotions that cause even more emotional hunger. Try to understand why you ended up eating, what emotions you felt, draw conclusions and accept yourself. This stops the loop.