Bodies need nourishment. Food and water provide fuel for bodily processes and activities, and we must replenish our supply daily. Individual body makeup along with activity level determines what you need to sustain yourself and maintain a healthy weight. While we know intellectually that we need food to thrive, sometimes food can hold power over us and we use it as a crutch to deal with difficult emotions. Often times, this can be referred to as emotional eating.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL EATING?
According to Amy Aponick, MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES (Registered and Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist), emotional eating is when “food is used to try to fulfill feelings such as stress, anxiety or sadness instead of being used to fulfill feelings of actual hunger.”
When stressed or anxious, it can be easy to turn to food to help deal with unpleasant emotions. More often than not, these tend to be unhealthy foods. When was the last time you saw someone “stress eat” a bag of carrots?
WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES?
While emotional eating may feel satisfying in the moment, it is not a great strategy overall. Emotional eating can lead to weight gain as well as other long-term health repercussions. Aponick advises, “A consequence aside from excess calories and impact on weight, is that emotional eating likely leads to excessive intake of sugar, salt and/or unhealthy fats (depending upon the foods chosen), which can impact blood sugar, blood pressure, and/or cholesterol levels.”
In addition, eating to satisfy a psychological need instead of a physical one does not address the problem. Think about the reasons you are eating when your body is not truly hungry. Are you bored? Stressed? Worried? Try spending 5-10 minutes on another stress-relieving activity such as journaling or taking a walk. Often clearing your mind of the worries helps reduce the urge to eat when your body does not truly need calories.
HOW CAN MY FAMILY AVOID EMOTIONAL EATING?
There are many strategies to help avoid emotional eating. Aponick recommends these tips for greater success:
1. Avoid keeping “trigger foods” in the house to help minimize emotion-based food decisions. We all have them—these are the foods that no matter how much willpower you may have, they still call your name, and if you start eating them, it’s very hard to stop.
2. Avoid going long periods of time between meals to help minimize the desire for snacking which can increase the risk for emotional eating decisions.
3. Make sure meals are well-balanced with protein, carbohydrates and fat, preferably healthy fats, and regularly consume good sources of fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Removing temptations can help reinforce healthy behaviors. When the urge strikes, take a moment to reflect on why you want to eat. Are you truly hungry? If you suspect you may be eating as an emotional response, try drinking a glass of water, journaling, walking or even coloring. Clear your mind and refocus your thoughts. Aponick reminds us that with our actions, we are setting an example for our family. “If someone wants their child to be a more mindful eater and less of an emotional eater, the parent needs to make sure that they are eating more mindfully too.” Practicing these strategies can help you lead by example and raise a family who develops healthy coping strategies.
The urge to emotionally eat may be an early sign of distress around food. If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association confidential Helpline at (800) 931-2237, or visit nationaleatingdisorders.org for more resources, help and support.
*Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions regarding your diet and lifestyle plans.