8 Ways You’re Eating Emotionally – And How To Stop It

There are lots of different types of emotional eating, says Vicki Notaro. Don't fool yourself in to thinking it's just happy v sad.

Food cravings

Do you ever think about what you’re eating? Silly question, of course you do. Whether you feel happy or sad, guilty or in a “feck it” humour, it’s very unusual to put something in your mouth without having some sort of emotional reaction to it.

When we talk about emotional eating, we often mean negative emotions – eating because we’re sad, stressed or overwhelmed. But there are lots of other types of emotion involved with a practice simply designed to give fuel to our bodies.

“We can also eat when we’re happy and reward ourselves with food,” says Paul Connolly, the managing director of Weight Management Ireland. “We can feel like we deserve it or have earned it.  This association usually stems back to childhood where we may have been rewarded with sweets if we were a good boy or girl, or perhaps a dessert or ice cream if we ate all our dinner.”

However, Paul says if we’re struggling with our weight or our eating habits, it pays to think about the bigger picture. “ We need to examine WHY we are eating at a particular time and why we choose particular foods to eat.” He says that in being conscious of the why and the triggers that make us eat, then we can better understand the results of our food choices.

“Food is about health and energy, not comfort when we are stressed or something to do when bored. Being conscious of what we eat and why is a good starting point to developing a healthy moderate relationship with food.

“In our centre, we have a questionnaire and cognitive behaviour techniques that can help identify the negative thoughts that may be causing the negative emotion, resulting in the negative behaviour of overeating… our thoughts determine our actions.”

So what are some of the emotions associated with eating? Take a look.

Feeling… stressed

AKA the “f*ck it” mentality

You’ve had a long, tough day and you’re buzzing with anxiety or too many thoughts running through your frazzled brain. Thinking about eating well or nourishment is the last thing on your mind, you need something quick and easy. Thus, the “f*ck it” mentality when presented with junk food or huge portions. You tell yourself you had no choice, and perhaps you didn’t. But it’s often after this that the guilt sets in, when you slow down.

The best way to avoid stressed eating is to plan. If you know you have a busy day or week, prepare for it. Bring your lunch, have healthy snacks in your bag and lots of water to hand. If things do go really crazy though, cut yourself some slack and try and eat better tomorrow.

Feeling… tired

AKA too exhausted to care

When you’re absolutely wrecked and depleted, your defences are down. You’ll reach for the phone, or whatever is nearest, be it a frozen pizza and chips or a carton of ice cream. These are the times that it matters the most to have options to hand. When you’re making or prepping a healthy meal, freeze a portion for these tricky times. Always have eggs in the fridge so you can make an omelette. Or if all else fails, go for a takeout that won’t derail you – think a Thai stir-fry, or sushi.

Feeling… hormonal

AKA Craving chocolate and junk

Like many emotional reactions, this one is also physical. Your body IS craving chocolate, or at least your brain is, so it is telling you to reach for it, that you deserve it, that it will help with mood swings and cramps. However, rational you knows that’s bullshit. Don’t let a couple of days a month throw you entirely off a healthy lifestyle, and try some dark chocolate instead. Look, we know it’s not the same thing and it doesn’t taste as decadent, but give it a few minutes and your satisfaction hormone, lectin, WILL kick in. Promise.

Feeling… entitled

AKA deserving of a reward

You’ve been SO good, you went to the gym and you had a salad for lunch, you DESERVE an Indian and six glasses of Prosecco! We’ve all been there, and it’s just a waste of time. If you’re working towards a fitness goal, it will take you a lot longer to get there if you’re downing the empty calories in alcohol and the extra ones in restaurant food. Dietitian Orla Walsh says that when you’re watching your weight and eating out, you should roughly double the amount of calories compared to if you were making it at home. DOUBLE. Perhaps it makes more sense to reward yourself with something more useful, like a small purchase or er, a ride?! Just a suggestion.

Feeling… lonely or bored

AKA filling the void

There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t found themselves stuffing their gob trying to fill themselves up, but still feeling empty inside. This one is the toughest, because food can temporarily give us a high and make us feel better. But once the high is over, it can make us feel ten times worse – guilty, gluttonous, ashamed. It sounds simplistic, but instead of reaching for a share sized bag of crisps when you feel lonely or bored, isn’t it better to do something active that will occupy your mind and could even bring new people in to your life? Easier said than done though, we know.

Feeling… smug

AKA “aren’t I BRILLIANT?!”

Eating healthily and nourishing our bodies is brilliant, but don’t think it doesn’t have an emotional connection just because it’s not a negative. “Clean eating and a focus on healthy foods is a better habit than regular takeaways, certainly,” says Paul. “Yet it can also be a form of emotional eating, where people want to be healthy and eat all the latest superfoods to feel part of a trend or group.”

Orthorexia, or an obsession with purity in food, has been on the rise since the advent of the clean eating phenomenon, so it’s just wise to keep that in mind. Eating leafy greens? Brilliant. Existing solely on them? Not so much.

Feeling… ecstatic

AKA Happy bingeing

When things are going well, you’re in a new relationship or having the best time on holiday, it’s really easy to throw caution to the wind and totally binge. You might gorge on five course meals with your beloved, or eat at all hours of the day and night at a festival, and you won’t care because you’re blissful. But that’s why we often put on weight when loved up, or come back from holidays heavier. Now that’s no bad thing at all, but if it becomes a problem or is getting you down, it needs to be addressed eventually. Self-confidence is key in life, so once that’s intact, no problemo. But don’t be afraid to admit you’ve overdone it and get back on track. Refusing garlic cheese fries or free ice cream is not a crime.

This article first appeared in STELLAR’s August issue. Our September issue is on shelves now! 

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