I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what to write for this article, and although I’ve had lots of ideas, nothing was really standing out. Then I came across an article in the Huffington Post1 on emotional eating and I thought that this might be a good place to start, not only because it’s something I have had to learn do deal with personally, but also because I think that emotional eating can often be one of the biggest challenges faced by anyone trying to lose weight (with or without the help of a personal trainer).
The interesting thing about emotional eating is that it’s not necessarily having negative emotions per say that’s the problem, but rather the suppression of those emotions2. A few years ago I worked on a research project looking at the suppression of cravings (for coffee and chocolate) and one of the main findings in craving research was that suppressing a craving may well work for a short period of time, but later people often experienced a ‘rebound’ effect, where the number of thoughts about the craved substance increased dramatically and to a greater level than if the thoughts had been ‘allowed’ in the first place. Some research even suggested that thought suppression might cause a ‘rebound’ effect in consumption of the desired food3. At the time I remember wondering if this was part of the reason that dieters can sometimes experience binging when they try to adhere to extreme diets that severely limit either the quantity or type of food eaten. Personally I do believe that in some cases the self-perpetuating cycle of severe restriction followed by overeating is what can lead people to be permanently ‘on a diet’ but never experience any weight loss, and may actually even cause them to gain weight (if the excess calories eaten during the ‘binge’ period are greater than the calories ‘saved’ during the dieting period).
So what can be done to help prevent or at least limit emotional eating? Well unfortunately there’s no easy answer to that question. However, attempting to really get to know your emotions and understand the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that are underlying them might be a much better tactic than trying to simply suppress them and pretend they’re not there.
The following four steps can be helpful in identifying and dealing with negative emotions and thoughts:
Step 1: Awareness - Be aware of your emotions. If you find yourself tempted to eat something even though you’re not physically hungry, take a few moments to sit quietly and try to identify what emotion is prompting you to eat – is it Boredom? Guilt? Anger? Anxiety?
Step 2: Acceptance – Accept your negative emotion rather than trying to push it away. Again, take some quiet time to just ‘sit’ with the emotion. Really feel it, allow it and accept it.
Step 3: Identify the Negative Thoughts that underlie the emotion – Ask yourself where the negative emotion has come from, e.g. what has happened in your life and what thoughts have you been having as a consequence.
Step 4: Re-appraise your Negative Thoughts – ask yourself questions such as “Is this really true?”, “Am I overreacting?”, “Would other people react this way?”, “What can I do to improve the situation?”, “Am I being too pessimistic?”, “What are the positive things I can focus on?”
For example, if you find that you’re feeling upset about something that happened at work, by accepting the emotion and then identifying where it comes from (e.g. you made a mistake today and you’re now having negative thoughts that you’re not good enough at your job or you’re anxious that you might get fired), then you can address those underlying thoughts by asking yourself questions such as “Is this really true?”, “Am I overreacting?”, “In what ways am I good at my job?” and “How can I become better at my job?”
Some of these questions may be tough questions to answer, or even ask, but in doing so you’ll be approaching your negative emotions head-on, and that in itself might just keep you from heading to the cookie jar for comfort.
These tips for dealing with emotional eating are great, and tackling the root cause of your emotions by examining the underlying conscious (and unconscious) thoughts that led to them is an excellent strategy (albeit not an ‘easy’ one –it certainly takes a surprising amount of practice to become aware of your own mind, just ask people who meditate!). Another, slightly easier-to-implement strategy that can also be helpful when you’re craving something, and you think the craving might be driven by my emotional state, is to ask the following questions:
- “Will eating this make me feel less lonely/angry/bored etc.?”
- “How will I feel after I’ve eaten this?”
- “What can I do instead of eating this that will help me feel a little better right now?” (e.g. going for a walk, calling a friend, having a bath, or doing a task that you’ve been putting off).
The first two questions really help you to recognize that the food you’re craving won’t actually help you feel any better. The third question, admittedly, is looking for a distraction, and while this isn’t really a long term solution, sometimes when you’re unable (or unwilling) to really delve into the root cause of a painful emotional state, finding an alternative to overeating can at least help avoid the guilt that might otherwise have ensued and compounded the negative emotions that prompted the overeating in the first place.
2 Evers C., Marijn Stok F., de Ridder DT. (2010) Feeding your feelings: emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 36(6):p792-804.