When I was in graduate school, writing my dissertation, I would sit at my computer for long periods of time in the “writing zone.” During this time, I often had within arm’s reach a six-pack container of gluten-free peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. I would inhale these cookies within an hour (usually 30 minutes!), and I was totally unaware – I would recall thinking, “how did all these cookies disappear so fast?!” I would rationalize eating these cookies by telling myself, “the cookies are gluten-free and have great protein with the peanut butter, so this is okay.” Looking back, I can now see that I was being driven by stress and the overwhelming feeling of having to submit many drafts of my dissertation to committee members. That reaching for the cookie while writing became habitual. And, the emotional eating becomes reinforced every time we practice the behavior. We as a society may be afraid or sometimes do not have the tools to help us learn how to be with discomfort associated with a painful thought, feeling, or emotion. So, instead, we eat. This works in the short term but has the potential to become extremely unhealthy in the long term, especially when done in excess.
What is “emotional eating”?
The traditional perspective on emotional eating contends that we eat out of habit, or to mask emotional distress. Basically, we eat to comfort, console or avoid feeling and experiencing discomfort. Emotional eating can span various life domains, including relationship conflict, work stress, and financial strain. The key is that the emotion is intertwined with eating, and usually entails overeating (or “bingeing”), eating foods you typically would not eat, or eating when you’re actually not hungry (e.g., done out of boredom). We learn at an early age that food provides the temporary comfort we seek when a negative experience presents itself. And, when eating to fill a void that isn’t the result of an empty stomach, we typically crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that specific food will meet our need. When done habitually, we don’t realize the extent to which our feelings are influencing our eating habits. The occasional binge could be harmless, but emotional eating can escalate into something more pervasive and difficult to control.
An important distinction to make is the not so obvious difference between emotional and physical hunger. I am sitting at my computer feeling overwhelmed by a looming work deadline. I start to crave a sprinkled donut, a food outside of my paleo diet, and I have to have it right now! This is an emotional rather than a physical hunger – the latter can wait and does not need to be satisfied instantaneously by a donut! I eat the donut, but still want another one, so I eat another donut. I’m still eating, even though I am no longer physically hungry. Now, I am trying to curb an emotional discomfort – the stress of a work deadline. Research concurs that emotional eating is often associated with an increased intake of sweet foods, such as cake and ice cream, and salty foods such as chips, and soda.
How can we work with emotional eating?
Yoga for weight loss, and more specifically meditation for weight loss, is a natural fit as we become mindful and are empowered to make healthy choices. The healthy choices that are a by-product of mindfulness do not occur in the quick fix of calorie burning or intense exercise, which is why the success rate for weight loss is so low for those modalities. The first step in addressing emotional eating is awareness or “mindfulness” of the behavior. Mindfulness-based approaches such as yoga and meditation are often touted for their role in improving various psychological and physical issues including depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. The mindfulness aspect of yoga, especially with the attention to breath during moments of uncertainty and discomfort that can come with intense or long held poses, can set the stage for us to bring awareness to habits surrounding emotional eating, and to determine how to dissuade ourselves from the temptation to engage in the behavior. In fact, the optimal approach to disengaging from emotional eating would involve learning how to “sit with” the discomfort, painful feeling/thought, etc., and to use healthy coping tools to traverse the turbulent waves of life that are a natural part of being human. In fact, there are research studies to support meditation and other mindfulness-based approaches (e.g., yoga) in helping to bring awareness to emotional eating (Katterman et al., 2014). In the end, emotional eating is not unhealthy in small doses or moderation. It becomes problematic when lack of awareness is no longer present and we give over to the negative experience.
Some practical tips to address emotional eating:
- Practice mindfulness!! Start to become aware of the habit pattern of reaching for a “comfort food” when life becomes overwhelming.
- When you have the urge to eat when you’re not physically hungry, identify a comfort food that’s healthy, instead of one that has little to no nutritious value.
- And, if it has to be a “comfort” food, think moderation, not elimination
- Eating is best done in silence—tune into the flavors, textures, colors, and the effects of the foods on your body when eating.
- Identify an alternative behavior to engage in when feeling emotionally uncomfortable, such as yoga, walking, talking to a friend.
So... the next time you are feeling sad, bored, or overwhelmed and you reach for that bag of cookies or pint of ice cream, ask yourself if this is your emotional or physical hunger speaking to you.