Are you an emotional eater? I guess we are all to a certain degree. But some of us struggle with emotional eating much more than others. I was raised by an emotional eater and have been working for years to overcome my tendency to soothe myself with food. It’s an ongoing challenge that gets easier as I learn more about underlying causes and strategies for coping.
Today, I stumbled across an interesting article in the Huffington Post by Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist who focuses on treating clients who are struggling with dieting, body image, anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. She has written several books on mindful eating including, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, which I’m currently reading.
In the article, Albers summarized this year’s findings from 5 clinical research studies on emotional eating and shared tips for how we can use the information to help us end our own emotional eating struggles.
Here’s my take on what she reported:
1) Your friends affect how you eat. According to a study in the journal Appetite (2012), your friends have an effect on how you feel about food and what you eat. In the study, two out of three friends were secretly instructed to restrict tempting foods while in the presence of a third friend. As a result, the third person restricted what he/she ate while eating with these friends and continued to do so when alone.
Another study conducted at Case Western Reserve University found that people-pleasers are especially susceptible to eating to make others more comfortable even if they aren’t hungry.
Tip: We all know that you eat matters. Well, it turns out that who you eat with matters too. If you’re trying to lose weight and/or eat healthier, it’s important to carefully consider who you eat with on a daily basis. Pay attention to how those around you impact the way you eat. And if you’re a people-pleaser, be careful to avoid eating just because others want you to. Remind yourself to focus first on taking care of yourself.
2) Work can be dangerous to your weight. People who reported feeling burned out on the job reported more emotional eating and uncontrolled eating. Been there and done that. Chronic stress, no matter where it comes from, raises your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to increase your cravings for sugary, fatty foods. So, if work is stressful, it’s going to contribute to weight gain.
Tip: If you’re struggling with your weight, it may be time to take a good hard look at your job stress to determine if it contributes to your emotional eating. Then ask yourself if your job is worth your health. If changing your job isn’t an option, work to find healthy manageable ways to soothe and calm yourself. For me this means lots of walking and yoga.
3) Sleep matters. A study at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester found that subjects who got only 2/3 of their normal amount of sleep ate more food, equalling 549 calories a day, than those who got their normal amount of sleep. I’ve experienced this in my own life so many times. Days when I’m sleep deprived I’m hungrier. It’s like my body is trying to make up for it’s lack of energy by taking in more fuel. Talk about a losing proposition when you are trying to lose weight and keep it off.
Tip: Sleep is very important to your health and your weight. If you are struggling with emotional eating, it’s critical that you get enough reset so set a sleep schedule and stick to it the best you can.
4) Don’t try to deny your feelings. Subjects in a study on emotional eating were either 1) given no instructions on coping with their emotions, 2) taught how to suppress their emotions or 3) told to think about them in a different, more positive way (reappraise them). “Reappraisal” was helpful in preventing people from beginning to eat.
Tip: Learning to feel your feelings and allow them to be without judgement is a skill worth developing. Don’t deny what you are feeling, try to talk yourself out of them, or stuff them down with food. Try telling yourself, “This too will pass.” Be compassionate toward yourself and validate that it’s “okay” to feel the way you do. Always remember that you’re entitled to your feelings.
5) Human biology is complicated. Does stress have to lead to comfort eating? In most cases, it does. But for some people, stress results in a lack of appetite and turning away from food. Scientists are still unraveling the complex relationship between food and our bodies and minds. In one 2012 study, subjects were put in a stressful situation and then their leptin (a chemical in the body believed to affect satiety) was measured. Increases in leptin correlated to a lower intake of comfort food. How do we raise our leptin levels?
Tip: There’s still much to understand about why people eat comfort foods. Eating (or not eating) when you are stressed is a complicated biological response, so don’t be so hard on yourself. Try to learn your triggers and responses to help you find strategies for managing them more effectively.
I learned so much from this article and realize that I have applied and/or am working to apply many of its suggested tips. Leaving stressful work and pursuing work I love, getting enough rest, honoring my emotions, practicing yoga and being selective about who I eat with have all help me get a better handle on my emotional eating issues. But it’s an ongoing practice.
Do you have a favorite tip for ending emotional eating?