People don’t just eat when they’re hungry. Social eating is one way people celebrate and commiserate. People also eat when we’re sad, lonely, bored, or anxious. Eating for comfort, without hunger, is called emotional eating.
Why Emotional Eating?
It’s very common for people to turn to sweet, fatty or salty foods for a quick feeling of pleasure. In combination with a balanced diet, the occasional treat is fine.
However, repeated eating of ‘junk’ foods in response to unpleasant feelings, as opposed to genuine hunger, may signify an emotional issue waiting to be addressed. An emotional eater will consume large quantities of food, usually unhealthy ‘junk’ foods, often alone. As there is no hunger to satisfy, bingeing can result.
Emotional eating is present in both sexes. It can very often start in childhood.
A child rewarded with sweet or fatty foods for good behaviour will almost always associate food with feelings of happiness and being loved;
A child who is denied tasty food as punishment may associate that food with feeling wronged. As an adult, feeling persecuted could automatically lead someone to turn to the ‘bad’ foods they were denied as children.
A child is even more likely to become an emotional eater later in life when food is used as compensation for the bad feelings associated with life’s hard knocks. The link between feeling victimised and eating can create life-long patterns of emotional eating.
The feelings of fullness and well-being that occur immediately after a session of emotional eating are temporary. Eating doesn’t treat or resolve the cause of unhappy feelings. The long-term consequences include emotional instability and, very often, obesity.
What Do We Eat?
Foods that give comfort, whether to sustain good feelings or banish unhappiness, are usually unhealthy when consumed in large portions. According to research from the University of Illinois, the number one comfort food for both sexes is ice cream. Favourites then break down by gender. For men, comfort foods are pizza, casserole and steak. For women, it’s biscuits and chocolate. Both sexes prefer potato chips when bored.
Chocolate is well-known for its pleasure-giving attributes, and this may be based in science. The central opioid system, and the neurotransmitter dopamine, are both activated by chocolate consumption, resulting in feelings of pleasure and peace.
How To Help Yourself
If you are an emotional eater, your feelings need to be treated with sensitivity. Telling yourself to stop, or to eat less, does not identify the issues that cause the eating in the first place.
A place to start is to give up judging food morally. Instead of good foods, you can have ‘everyday’ foods. Instead of bad or naughty foods, try having ‘occasional’ foods. Removing the associations between food and behaviour also helps lessen the emotions attached.
Thinking of food as feast or famine can also support emotional eating. A healthy diet isn’t ‘ruined’ by one packet of chips. Nobody is perfect, and learning moderation can help you understand and accept your limitations.
Take time to recognise the feelings that send you to the fridge. List the emotions that trigger the urge, and think of other ways to cope other than eating. Feelings are normal, and healthy, if they are in response to real issues.
If you feel sad, have some quiet time to reflect, and maybe cry;
If you feel angry, hit a pillow;
If you feel anxious, talk to a friend.
If your feelings and emotions seem to have no basis in reality, or persist even after the cause is long gone, you may need to seek professional help. Your doctor or local health centre can recommend a counsellor or psychologist.