Wednesday, June 1, 2022

As a liveWELL Health Coach, I often hear about struggles with emotional eating. We have all gone through many challenges the last couple of years, and emotional eating has become an even more important topic to address. We are grateful to have experts on campus to turn to for advice. I reached out to Taylor Kline, RD, LD who presents regularly on this topic, and she shared the following information and tips.

Carla Melby-Oetken, liveWELL Health Coach

What is the difference between emotional eating and other kinds of eating?

We eat for many reasons. Emotional, celebratory, comforting, boredom, hunger, etc. All types and reasons for eating have their appropriate time and place. Emotional eating might look like a tough day at work followed by an ice cream cone on the way home. Celebratory eating might look like trying a little of everything at Thanksgiving dinner and maybe feeling a little too full after. Comfort eating might look like a warm home cooked meal from childhood. Eating out of boredom might look like snacking on popcorn while on a long drive. True hunger is the eating driven by the stomach growling for food.  The task is recognizing when a certain type of eating is out of balance with the rest of our eating. For simplicity, it is easiest to lump eating into two main categories: emotional hunger and physical hunger.

What is emotional hunger?

The short answer is, using food to regulate or influence emotions. Regularly eating until having a sick or overly stuffed feeling. Eating due to shame or guilt about self or actions. Consistently eating when not hungry or bored. Using food as a reward. These, and many more, are all examples of emotional eating.

What are the signs of emotional hunger?

Emotional hunger typically has cravings for specific foods which are usually comfort foods. The hunger sometimes is not satisfied even after the stomach is full resulting in overeating. Sudden urges to eat can be triggered by stressful events like running late for work, an argument with a significant other, or car trouble. Emotional eating can leave a person with feelings of shame or guilt about the type or amount of food they have eaten. This type of eating does not tend to follow normal times of eating during the day. A person can feel emotional hunger any time.

Why does emotional eating happen?

It is important to acknowledge that emotional eating is complicated and not the fault of any one person or issue. Emotional eating tends to happen over time when the appropriate reason for eating slowly becomes a coping mechanism. Eating high sugar, high carb, and high fat foods have a physiological response in our brains that can make us feel temporarily good. Over time, eating when sad, anxious, angry, fatigued, etc. can create in unhealthy relationship with food making it the main source of relief.  

Other, less obvious, reasons for emotional eating could be the inability to process and deal with difficult feelings. It takes time and effort to work through tough emotions. Eating unconsciously in front of the TV, in the car, digging through the refrigerator or pantry, or eating past fullness might be a sign of some other unmet need. Frequently beginning and ending diets (“yo-yo” dieting) can be taxing on the relationship with food. Diets tends to be based on restriction or elimination of certain foods which can be stressful mentally and physically. Upbringing plays a large role in eating style as adults. As a child, being forced to “clean your plate”, eat foods you disliked, or eat quickly likely plays a role in current eating style.

Tips to combat emotional eating:

This first step in combating emotional eating is to recognize it for what it is, a coping mechanism. Be kind to yourself! With time and commitment, a person can develop more constructive coping skills and mend the relationship with food. I always recommend establishing consistent care with a therapist or other mental health professional. Making a small list of things to do that take three minutes, 30 minutes, and three hours. This may help fill blank periods of time with new and enjoyable things besides eating. Get plenty of sleep. Adults need 7+ hours of sleep per night and sleep deprivation can skew hunger and craving cues. Eat consistently through the day to prevent hunger from building to intense by the end of the day. Recognize that every meal and snack are a new chance to make a good choice. The day or week isn’t “ruined” by one meal. Prioritize healthy relationships with other people. Make time to meet with a friend for coffee or talk on the phone.

It is up to you to make positive changes in your life! You can do it! Reach out when you need help to people you trust and health professionals.

Taylor Kline RDN LD