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Rather than discuss well-known emotional eating disorders such as bulimia, I will concentrate on binge eating which many women engage in from time to time. It is important to recognize this behavior if it becomes a regular pattern, because frequent emotional eating warrants a diagnosis of binge eating disorder and requires treatment and intervention.
Binge eating is characterized by eating compulsively to cope with negative emotions and stressful situations. A binge eater is rarely hungry when she begins to eat and will continue to eat well after she is full. Such episodes can last for up to two hours or can occur off and on throughout the day. The binger feels guilty both during and after the episode, but will not attempt to counteract it by fasting, taking laxatives, vomiting, fasting or over-exercising. A strong lack of self-control as well as feelings of shame will accompany this behavior pattern. There is a strong association between binge eating and depression. Binge eating is also driven by social components such as social pressure to be thin, emotional and sexual abuse, parental criticism of a child’s weight, and the use of food as reward or punishment.
Food cravings are usually the strongest when you are in emotional crisis. You may reach for food for comfort or to serve as a distraction. Consider the following highly stressful events and think about whether you reached for comfort foods during such times:
- Financial problems
- Health problems
- Work issues
- Relationship issues
- Family issues
Though some people will lose their appetites when stressed and will refrain from eating, many others will engage in impulsive eating in an effort to deal with negative emotions. This may be relatively harmless if such emotional eating occurs on a very rare occasion, but becomes a serious problem when it is used as the only coping mechanism for stressful situations or negative emotions. Just bear in mind that if you have a rare moment of weakness, it is important to recognize it as just that and to prevent yourself from spiraling into excessive feelings of guilt over the incident. If you engage in an episode of emotional eating, learn to forgive yourself and have a fresh start the following day.
Why We Engage in Emotional Eating
What occurs almost invariably when we eat emotionally is that we turn to cookies, cakes, candy, fried foods and breads rather than to healthy foods. There is a biochemical basis for such behavior. Carbohydrates which are high in sugar or fat release dopamine in our brains which in turn stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, creating a sense of euphoria. These foods are usually associated with pleasurable memories, such as cake which you may have looked forward to on your birthday, or macaroni and cheese as a treat after school when you were a child.
Food can also serve as a happy distraction from conflict or stressful events by stimulating the aforementioned pleasure centers. What will frequently occur is that an excessive amount of these foods will be consumed. However, if you remain aware of such automatic connections between food and mood and realize when you are eating for reasons other than hunger, you can break this cycle and get back on track with healthy eating habits which are associated with true hunger.
How To Combat Emotional Eating
- Keep a food diary. Get in the habit of writing down everything you eat and drink, including the quantity, the times at which you eat, your emotional state while eating the meal, and your level of hunger. By doing this you may see patterns which will reveal your emotional relationship with food.
- Remove tempting foods. Avoid stocking comfort foods in your home if you find that they are difficult to resist. And by all means avoid making trips to the grocery store if your emotions are spiraling out of control!
- Practice stress management. Yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques are effective methods of managing your stress.
- Determine whether you are truly hungry. Many times people may believe they are hungry when in reality they are actually emotionally distraught and desperately searching for a way to defuse such emotions.
- Make sure you consume adequate calories. Individuals who are trying to lose weight will often restrict their calorie intake too much, and will turn to the same foods in an effort to remain on track without rewarding themselves with an occasional treat. Adding variety to your meal plan will also help to keep you on track.
- Distract yourself. If you get an urge to snack when you aren’t truly hungry, distract yourself by watching a movie, calling a friend, reading, listening to music, or taking a walk.
- Consume healthy snacks. If an urge to snack between meals strikes, choose a low-calorie snack such as vegetables with seasoned nonfat Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, low fat cottage cheese or rice cakes.
- Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep is an important component in decreasing cravings for comfort foods.
- Eat at regular intervals. Consume smaller meals every three to four hours to keep you from feeling hungry or deprived.
- Focus on the experience of eating. Learn to eat in a mindful manner, in which you pay attention to your meal and only your meal. Become aware of the sensations associated with eating.
- Reward yourself. It is both physically and emotionally unhealthy to practice excessive calorie restriction for prolonged periods. Allow yourself to have a favorite food or meal once each week.
- Connect with your emotions. When a food craving hits during an emotional time, write down the emotions you are experiencing, such as sadness, loneliness or anger.
- Seek professional help if emotional eating is frequent. There are countless support groups which you can join which will help you to develop insight as well as the skills to avoid engaging in such behavior.