Do You Eat Your Feelings? Here’s How To Do It The Healthy Way

Reach for a bucket of ice cream every time something upsets you? Yup - we know. It turns out there's a way to do it wisely.

Screenshot 2016-07-29 15.24.17

It’s a chick flick cliché. The relatable protagonist hits a roadblock in life and cries into food. Tears flow and her mouth is jammers: doughnuts, cake, crisps, biscuits, pizza and every menu item on the McDonalds Eurosaver menu are all acceptable options.

If movies were an accurate representation of modern womanhood (which, FYI, they are not), you’d assume we don’t so much react to situations, as go on a crazed hunt for ice cream – and forget about putting it into a bowl.

But there’s some truth to the lazy stereotype of the woman eating her emotions while camped out by the fridge. Ever grabbed a takeaway after a particularly crap day in work, only to realise halfway through you weren’t actually hungry? That’s emotional eating, something lots of us find ourselves grappling with.

“As a dietitian, I see it often,” dietician Orla Walsh of O.W.N. your health confirms. “Food is more than fuel for most people.” Orla stresses that emotional eating is also an issue among men, but points to studies suggesting it’s more common among women. She references one survey where 43 percent of female participants reported overeating or eating unhealthily in the past month due to stress; with male respondents it was 32 percent.


But how do you start to combat emotional eating? Mindful eating could be the key to recognising your triggers and re-establishing a healthier relationship with food. Three years ago Patricia Daly, from the University of Arizona College of Nursing, published a study on how encouraging mindful eating in obese teenage girls, aged 14-17, was a more effective weight-loss strategy than targeting young women with dietary and exercise information.

Over a period of six weeks, one group of students took classes on mindful eating to determine their behavioural cues when it came to eating and address their motivations for eating when full. These girls lost an average of 5.25lb, and their BMIs decreased significantly. Their counterparts, taught about the benefits of healthy eating and regular exercise, gained an average of 4lb.

“You’re not alone,” are Patricia’s comforting words to anyone caught in a continuing cycle of stess; eat; stress; eat; repeat. When it comes to those extra eats, Patricia says that “emotional eating is the driving force most of the time.” The danger, she explains, is that you disconnect eating from hunger and need, instead associating meals and snacking with stress relief and mood soothers.

So how do you eat mindfully? For starters, Patrica says we need to break the pattern we’re in and aim for a long term change in behaviour. “If you go on a diet, it infers you’re going to come off a diet,” she points out. To begin, participants are talked through their triggers, and there’s food in every session. There’s also discussion around memory. You’re asked to recall an emotional event, and then taste certain flavours to see how they affect your recall. Salt helped people forget; sugar had a somewhat calming effect.


There are seven types of hunger, Patricia explains. The key to confronting emotional eating is figuring out which one triggers you, and recognising when you’re actually hungry.

Eye hunger is prompted when you see something you like. The visual stimulation of an indulgent slice of rich chocolate cake brings on the, “ah sure why not…” impulse. Nose hunger is a powerful trigger, because our sense of smell is heavily associated with emotional memory. Can’t pass a bakery without following the scent of fresh baking bread inside? That’s nose hunger, girlfriend.

Mouth hunger is when you seek a relaxing texture. Think about that disappearing bucket of cinema popcorn or a crunchy bag of crisps. Mental hunger is when you realise you forgot to eat lunch and grab something to keep you going.

The two types of hunger we should aim to respond to are fuel hunger and stomach hunger. Fuel hunger keeps energy levels up -– like carbs on a gym day – and stomach hunger is what drives a baby. “That’s what you should be figuring out. You want to channel your inner two-year-old,” Patricia says.

The seventh ‘hunger’ is heart, the chief suspect for emotional eating. “You’re eating for the same reason we talk to alcoholics about drinking,” Patricia says of this trigger. Her advice to those struggling to battle heart hunger is to acknowledge your triggers, and tackle them.

If you eat out of boredom, take up a new activity. If loneliness is your junk food provocation, arrange to meet a friend or a walk with a neighbour. “Nights in are a time where mindless, instead of mindful, eating can often occur,” Orla Walsh cautions, so look into moving your go-to snack regime away from foods high in salt and sugar.

But you don’t have to ban all delicious treats from your life. A lot of mindful eating is about focusing on the moment. So instead of gobbling the entire thing, which you may have done in the past, have a small slice of cake and don’t beat yourself up about it. Enjoy it – and move on.

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

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