Are You an Emotional Eater?

Picture of Liz Forsyth

Liz Forsyth

Are You an Emotional Eater?

Almost everyone is an emotional eater of some sort, but emotional eating can be viewed on a scale. Rare occurrences of emotional eating are not a problem, but prolonged episodes need attention and severe emotional eating usually requires the insight of a professional. If there is an emotional eating scale then the question to ask is: Where do you fit in – is your emotional eating rare, occasional or constant?

What is emotional eating?

When we use food in response to situations or feelings that make us feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied it’s called emotional eating. Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

You’ve spent the whole day inside the house. You feel overwhelmed with a list of jobs that need to be done. You need to clean up the lounge room before you can vacuum the floor but the kids are constantly inside just making more mess. You want to have things under control by the time your partner comes home and you still need to make dinner.You are so frustrated by your day, but you ask the kids for help and feel like no one's listening. When the kids are finally in bed, you open the refrigerator. You're not really hungry, but you feel like eating something. You look around. There are some carrots. No, you don’t want those. Celery? No, that’s not it. Ice cream? YES! Maybe you’ll have just a little. Mmmm, it’s good. Perhaps you’ll have a little more … before you know it, you’ve finished the tub!

If you almost always use food in one or more of the following situations it is likely that your emotional eating is problematic.

  • I turn to food when I am frustrated

  • I eat after an argument

  • When I feel bad about myself I eat

  • When I am bored I eat too much

  • If I anticipate a lonely weekend I stock up on junk food

  • I keep eating even after I am full

  • When I feel unappreciated I eat lots of junk food

  • I eat when I am depressed

  • I eat when I don't know what else to do

  • I eat junk food when I am feeling uncertain

Gaining Control Through Fulfillment 

Emotional eating is ultimately about a lack of fulfillment. It is often the times when you are unsatisfied with your life and don’t feel worthy, that you eat to fill the absence and to distract yourself from your discontent. How do you find fulfillment in your life?

One of the best ways to address emotional eating then is to find fulfillment and learn how to be happy with yourself and your life. Easier said than done, of course! But here is some food for thought (pardon the pun):

Turn to others – Instead of always trying to meet your needs yourself, learn to ask for help. Isolation and emotional eating go hand in hand, so keep in touch with supportive friends and family and call them when you sense a bout of emotional eating might be about to happen. It is also worthwhile keeping your dietitian appointment as despite you feeling like it would be a waste of time, this is in fact a valuable time to discuss your shortfalls, without being judged, and then guided back on track with strategies and perspective.

Practice positive self-talk – There's surprising power in pretending. Get out of the “I have no control mode” and get into “I do have control of my life and food” mode.Even if you don't believe it at first, your behaviour has a way of catching up with your self-talk and your emotional eating will be easier to control.

Find purpose and meaning – Make sure your life is filled with things that mean more to you than food. Maintain good friendships, take an art or language course, volunteer, learn music, campaign for a cause you believe in – anything that gives you a feeling of purpose and connects you to the rest of the world.

Be thankful – At the end of each day, list three things you’re thankful for. You won't need food to feel better if you are fulfilled, have more fun, have a sense of purpose and are aware of the small pleasures in your life.

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