Comfort foods ease us through breakups, rainy days, the cold of winter, and bouts of depression and loneliness. As a very occasional thing, this isn’t really a problem. Some comfort foods may even be relatively healthy, like a bowl of warm tomato soup on a cold day. But if you rely on comfort foods every day and/or several times throughout the day, then you may be an emotional eater.
Emotional eating means consuming foods for reasons other than hunger. We all do it, consciously or not, to some degree. We may polish off an entire bag of chips out of boredom or eat junk food and colas while staying up late to finish a term paper. We may reach for a sweet and fatty treat when our heart is breaking or pick up some fast food when things get rough at work. When done often though and without us knowing what we’re doing, emotional eating takes a toll on our health and only acts as a temporarily bandage for a deeper emotional scar.
Know the Triggers – Emotional eating is brought on by stress, boredom, loneliness, depression, anger, anxiety, or frustration. Many of these emotional states are linked to poor self-esteem and interpersonal relationship troubles. Unemployment, financial difficulties, health issues, stressful work environments, the weather, lack of sleep, and insufficient physical activity all can exacerbate the problem of emotional eating.
Look for Signs – How do you know if you’re an emotional eater if many of us eat emotionally without knowing it? Look for the signs that you’re eating to satisfy a need other than hunger. True hunger is a reminder for nutrition but doesn’t normally beg for a specific food every time. If you constantly reach for ice cream, pizza, or some other unhealthy food, then you’re most likely trying to treat an emotional hunger. True hunger builds gradually and can be ignored while emotional hunger can appear suddenly and feels more intense or immediate. True hunger is satisfied when you finish eating. Emotional hunger isn’t fully satisfied by food, leaving behind feelings of guilt and despair.
Avoid the Triggers – How do you stop emotional eating? The first step is to realize there is a problem and that you can do something about it. Next, know the triggers. Triggers are usually emotional, but they can also be social, situational, and mental too. Negative emotions, social events, having bad food available, or our own negative thoughts toward ourselves, our bodies, and our lifestyles can make it easier to look to food as a way to dull the pain or boredom. Learn which ones affect you and in what way. Many emotional eaters find that keeping a food journal helps them keep track of when they eat poorly and their emotional or mental state when that eating took place. Once you know which triggers affect you, avoid them and situations that create them.
Unwind – Work on relieving stress. Stress creates other negative emotions and fosters them. It doesn’t matter where stress is coming from—work, school, friends, family, or another influence—we can only handle so much before it spills out into anger, depression, anxiety, and frustration. Take up yoga, practice meditation, get a massage, or try breathing exercises to release some of that stress. If your job or financial situations create more stress, take steps to get those under control too. That may mean changing career paths or cutting back on some of the things you enjoy. Sacrifices aren’t easy, but your health and well-being are important.
Stay Active – Avoid boredom like the plague that it is. Idle hands reach for unnecessary snacks and junk foods. Make a list of healthy activities that you enjoy, make you happy, or at least make you feel productive, and then turn to that list whenever you begin to feel bored. Go for a walk, read a book, take a quick bike ride, jump rope for a few minutes, hike, listen to music, play a game, take a bath, call a friend, clean, or even do laundry. Keep the list handy and use it.
Stock the Good Stuff – Substitute in some healthy comfort foods. Fruits and many vegetables can satisfy your sweet tooth while supplying vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients. Nuts, seeds, and avocado can fill in for the salty and fatty foods you crave with healthier fats and less sodium. A square of dark chocolate isn’t a bad snack either if you limit yourself to one a day. You don’t have to cut out comfort foods altogether, just choose better ones. Don’t forget to allow yourself to cheat every once in a while, in moderation. Letting yourself have just four bites of the food you crave once a week or every couple weeks will lessen cravings and make it easier to reward yourself now and again for doing so well.
Understand Cravings – Cravings don’t last forever and they aren’t unbeatable. They feel intense and never-ending when you’re in the midst of them, but that’s an illusion. Cravings don’t continue building exponentially until you give in. They are more like a bell curve. The urge to feed the emotional hunger comes quickly and then builds dramatically. Most of us give in around the peak, the top of the bell. If you can go a little longer, those cravings will begin to drop off and eventually fade away. It takes some willpower and a little faith, but it is possible. You can do it. You can resist.
Know You Matter – It’s also important to know you’re worth more than you or anyone else thinks. Life is a miracle of physics and chemistry where each cell in your body runs on the light energy of a burning star tens of millions of miles away. The explosions of dying stars created the atoms that make up those cells. It doesn’t matter what you look like, how you dress, what kind of money you have, what job pays the bills, or how you live, you are a precious individual. You are unique and special. You are a child of starfire. Yes, it may sound a little cheesy, but it’s true. You are made of star-stuff and you are special. Adopt that view of yourself and hold onto it. Don’t let anyone, including you, disrupt that perspective with negativity, doubts, mocking words, or self-depreciating thoughts.
Seek Help – The emotional scars that lead you to make poor food choices may need more than just a pep talk, a hike, some meditation, and some apple slices. If that’s all you need to push yourself to eat better, great. For those who need more, get help. This can be a support group, your family and friends’ backing, or even professional counseling. You must address some of the reasons you have turned to food for comfort. It won’t be easy, no matter the route, but it will be worth the discovery that you can be more and banish negative emotions without hurting your health.