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Breaking the Emotional Eating Cycle

Is food a coping mechanism for you?  Do you deal with anger, stress, conflict and other feelings by turning to your favorite taste? You're not alone. Experts have estimated that at least 70% of overeating is driven by this type of food and mood connection, often called emotional eating. This type of eating often derails weight loss success, leaving us feeling unsuccessful and out of control.  But if you're prone to emotional eating, the good news is there are ways to regain that control and get you on track to a healthy way of eating and a better relationship with food. 

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is defined by consuming food in response to how you are feeling emotionally and not how hungry you are physically. Oftentimes, emotional eating involves consuming large amounts of generally unhealthy junk or “comfort” foods. These foods offer a short-term fix but often set in motion a cycle of guilt, which circles back to the original emotions that caused the eating in the first place.

Are you an Emotional Eater?

Emotional eating can be different for everyone. Some might do it consciously and with the same foods they’ve built a routine around. For others, it might be done unconsciously without the realization that they are doing it until the chip bag is empty. Emotions that cause overeating can range as well. I had many clients who kept a drawer full of candy bars at work specifically for moments of high stress. The candy was their quick fix. Other clients could identify one specific food (such as chocolate chip ice cream) they would consistently overeat (regardless of how they were feeling at the time) because of an emotional connection they’d created with that food. 

For many of my clients, they knew they were emotional eaters understood that their habit was the primary roadblock to their weight loss success. For others, we had discovered the unconscious habit during their weight loss journey. Not sure if you are an emotional eater? Consider the following questions:

  1. Do you keep a “junk food” drawer at work in times of need?
  2. Do you think about food all of the time?
  3. Do you eat when you are not hungry?
  4. Do you eat when you are sad, stressed, nervous, mad….?
  5. Do you ever feel guilty after eating?

 How-to Break the Cycle:

  1. Awareness. Start to document your eating throughout the day along with what’s happening to see if you can identify how hungry you are at each snack/meal, where you were while you were eating, how you are feeling, what your energy was, and how you felt after each meal. Doing this practice allows you to catch what we call the “Domino Effect”. When you can see the chain of events that set you in motion to overeat, you can start moving backwards in the chain and identify solutions. 
  2. Options. Once you are aware of the patterns that lead you to overeat, you can start brainstorming some options for yourself and, if helpful, a friend, health professional, or counselor. If you find stress leads you to overeat, you might consider measuring your stress hormones to help create a stress management protocol. You might see that every time you eat with a certain individual or in a certain environment, you overeat. Many people find success with creating a list of ways to cope with emotions – such as taking a break from work, going for a walk, calling a friend, etc, that they can use in place of eating for comfort. You might share this with a friend, coach or counselor.
  3. Set goals and Execute. First, find your motivation for making change. Is it to lose weight, increase your energy or improve your health? Ask yourself what behaviors you can “own” to help reach your goals and which ones you need help with. A coach can help you clarify goals and devise a plan with you to achieve necessary changes. Include paths of accountability in your plan, such as journaling, keeping a detailed food log, checking in with a friend or coach, etc.

Written By:  Anika DeCoster - Program Manager of LifeTime WeightLoss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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