The discussion about emotional eating is one that we as coaches have with clients quite a lot. It’s no surprise really, emotional eating is very very common. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t eaten out of emotion at some time or another. It’s pretty normal and it can encompass positive emotions as well as negative emotions. For the sake of this piece though I’m going to focus on negative emotions contributing to eating and what we can do about it.
Before I get started I would like to mention to keep in mind that some amount of emotional eating can be a fine coping mechanism. As I said, it’s extremely common to eat out of emotion - Food isn’t only just food after all. However, it becomes an issue when emotional eating starts to negatively impact your life and affect your well being. If you feel out of control or a slave to your emotions or it’s causing you to overeat and generate unwanted fat gain then it’s worth looking at addressing it.
Let's set the scene - There is an emotional trigger firstly. It could be anything like a bad day at work, a tense interaction with your partner or a difficult time of year for you personally. This can generate some negative thoughts which create negative emotions. This can then lead to eating as a source of comfort. Lets examine what’s going on here though. As far as your body is concerned there is a problem. You feel bad, down, upset, stressed - whatever it is, and it wants to solve this problem and for you to feel better. To cope.
An analogy I love to use here with clients is that of a 'toolbox' of coping mechanisms. The problem of negative emotions arises and your body turns to it’s toolbox to pull out the right tool for the job. The one that’s gonna fix you up. Here’s the thing though. For a lot of people ‘eating’ might be the only tool in that box. And well, if it’s the only tool in the box, even if it’s not the best one for the job your body doesn’t have much choice does it? It’s gonna pull out the eating tool every single time to fix that problem. Simply being aware of how this process happens can be enough for many people to make a change. They might never have thought much about it before. They just see the cycle of - eating, feeling temporarily better, then feeling even worse potentially if you felt eating was a really bad choice in this situation and having feelings of guilt and/or shame which doesn’t exactly help you feel much better does it? As I said emotional eating can be effective for coping. It is a legitimate tool. But there’s no point in pulling out a hammer for a nail if you’re going to bang your thumb every time you tap it. That makes you feel a whole lot worse. What is an effective solution then?
Add more tools to the toolbox.
You’ve got a problem and in this case there are many many solutions. The trick is to find some way of coping, of helping you feel better, of solving that problem, that doesn’t involve eating. You'll want to start adding more tools to your toolbox of coping and there are many good options for the job. It will be quite individual as to what ‘does it’ for you so you might have to try a lot of different tools to see what works best to give you that sense of comfort. Some tools you might only use once and they go back in the box to gather dust but there will be a few that you’ll use the majority of the time. I’m going to make some typical suggestions below but it’s likely with a bit of thought you’ll know a few that are right for you. Think about some things that maybe you used to really like to do but don’t do anymore. Are there any options there? If there was no food available for whatever reason how would you go about finding some comfort? The answers too these sorts of questions will shed some light on the situation. And I hope it goes without saying that you certainly don’t want to cope using behaviours that are detrimental to your health like smoking, alcohol or drugs. With that said here are some good options to add to your toolbox.
Going for a walk (Bonus points if it’s in nature)
Journalling/writing about how you’re feeling - getting your thoughts and emotions out on paper
Meditation or mindfulness practice
Playing a game
Calling a friend or family member for a chat and some empathy and compassion
Watching your favourite TV show or movie
Having a bubble bath
Listening to your favourite songs (Dancing around is optional but encouraged)
Taking part in a hobby of yours (Drawing, sculpting, playing music. etc.)
Playing with a pet
Looking at some favourite photos
Those are some options. Try any and all of them to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Invest in a few more tools for your toolbox to cope so you don’t need to pull out ‘eating’ quite as often. It’s okay to feel those emotions too. This is important. You’re not trying to distract yourself from them or cover them up. They’re real and they deserve acknowledgement. Then pull out a tool to help yourself to feel better.