17 Jan 2024 Article

Emotions, especially negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, disappointment, and insecurity can make you eat more than you actually want. What do you do to prevent this? In this article we will look at the phenomenon of emotional eating: what it is, why some people are more susceptible to it, and what you can do yourself to tackle emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is a fairly common phenomenon. Attempts to suppress negative emotions lead to emotional eating. In an emotional binge you eat without actually being hungry. How exactly this is expressed can differ from person to person. Some people are not even aware of their eating behavior and do not know that they are trying to numb tensions with food. Other people are aware of this but cannot let go of the habit. How often someone is confronted with emotional eating also varies very much from person to person. Some women mainly have it just before their period. Other people try to compensate for their negative emotions by eating literally every day.

Are you an emotional eater?

Are you an emotional eater? Do this self-test:

  1. When you feel lonely, do you want something to eat?
  2. If something bothers you and you’re worried about it, would you like to eat something?
  3. When things don’t go as planned, do you want something to eat?
  4. When you’re anxious, do you want to eat something?
  5. If you regret something, would you like to eat something?

If you answered YES to at least one of the above questions, then you are an emotional eater.

Children and emotional eating

Emotional eating behavior in children is rare. Most young children show a completely different reaction to negative emotions than adults – they refuse to eat. If children learn that food is part of comfort or a reward, it will become a problem for them later in life. Emotional eating behavior in adulthood is associated with overeating, eating disorders, and atypical forms of depression (e.g. winter depression). This is why it is so important to find comfort or reward outside of food and not to teach your children that food has anything to do with reward or punishment. If you have children, make sure that they do not learn to associate food with emotions.

What to do if you are prone to emotional eating?

Here is some practical advice that can hopefully help you improve your eating behavior.

Recognize (and don’t deny) your own behavior

It is important to become aware of how your eating habits are regulated by emotional triggers. Acknowledge them. Mindfulness can help prevent emotional eating. If you are mindful in all daily actions, you become aware of not only what you eat but also why you eat it.

Don’t drink alcohol

In addition to the fact that alcohol is generally harmful to our body, its excessive use is one of the causes of psychoneurological disorders. Many people have the habit of “soothing” stress and a bad mood with a drink. The euphoric effect of alcohol is short-lived. However, it is followed by a much longer depressive period. Chronic alcohol consumption depresses the nervous system and negatively affects mood.

Moreover, when you drink alcohol, you also tend to eat more.

Avoid caffeine

Avoid drinking coffee and strong tea. The caffeine they contain stimulates the nervous system and can lead to depressive thoughts, feelings of panic and the inability to think clearly. And all this can lead to emotional binges.

Eat complex carbohydrates instead of simple carbohydrates

Replacing simple carbohydrates, such as sweets and processed foods made from white flour, with unrefined, whole-grain foods can help control mood swings and emotional outbursts in the long term. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods high in dietary fiber: whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds.

Count to 600 and switch focus

The desire to grab food as a response to an emotion comes and goes. If you have an emotional eating binge, tell yourself that you will only eat when you are REALLY hungry. Wait ten minutes. Keep in mind that most emotional outbursts only last a few minutes. So, there is a good chance that the binge will be over after ten minutes. And it certainly helps to distract yourself. Do something that distracts you from the craving for food. Preferably take a walk or do some other physical activity that has nothing to do with food.

Do not keep “dangerous” products at home or in the workplace

No cookies, no chips, and no pizzas in the freezer. Don’t use “visitors” or “children” as an excuse to keep candy. Candy is bad for them as well.

PMS and emotional eating

Do you suffer from PMS that is accompanied by binge eating? Then read this.

Research shows that changes in ovarian hormones during the menstrual cycle go hand in hand with emotional eating in women. Emotional peaks are most common during the luteal phase (the time between ovulation and the start of menstrual bleeding), when the progesterone peak occurs. That is probably why many women suffer from regularly recurring binges just before the start of the menstrual cycle. Does this sound familiar to you? Just before the start of your period, try to keep yourself busy and don’t indulge in binge eating.

Women who use oral contraceptives may also experience emotional eating episodes. It is probably because oral contraceptives can lead to a deficiency of vitamin B6, an element necessary to maintain normal mental functioning. Clinical studies show that depressed women who use oral contraception generally respond positively to vitamin B6. You might want to try a B6 supplement if you take oral contraceptives and are prone to emotional eating.

Finally: Get help

Emotional eating is a common problem. Rest assured you are not alone. Know that you can seek professional help. This could be a specialized dietician or a psychotherapist. Not ready for this step yet? Then find a local (online) initiative in your country that provide support for eating disorders and bring people with similar food-related problems together.