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Emotion-Triggered Eating

Posted on March 23, 2016 at 10:31 AM by Iowa Weight Loss Specialists

Written By: Paige Harnish, LISW


Many people refer to themselves as “emotional eaters”, in other words, they eat to “feel better”.  Unfortunately, most of us realize very quickly after the eating begins, and certainly once we stop, that we feel worse than ever, both physically and emotionally! 


While physical hunger gives us physical signals, like a growling stomach, psychological hunger (or emotional eating) gives us more subtle signals based on cultural and societal messages.


Some emotion-based eating is a response to a negative mood, for example: “After the week I’ve had, I need to treat myself to a good steak” or “I need to nurse this heartache with a weekend of eating chips and ice-cream in front of the television.”


Even positive feelings can trigger eating, such as “after that win let’s treat ourselves to ice cream!” 


Those reactions to emotions are socially acceptable and “forgivable”. We joke to our friends about our indulgences and they nod, understanding and supporting this behavior (partially because it gives them the freedom to do the same).


Deep down we know that coping with emotional highs and lows with food doesn’t make sense and doesn’t help our actual physical health or appearance.


Side effects of emotion-based eating can cause significant distress and impairment. These effects include unrelieved or worsened emotional state, guilt, feelings of powerlessness about controlling both eating and emotions, and lack of progress toward weight loss or weight management goals.


Here’s a few tips for how you can you stop emotion-based eating:


1. Recognize when it happens: Keeping a food and mood diary can be helpful for identifying triggers for emotion and stress-based eating. Journal every time the urge to eat (when you aren’t hungry) or when overeating occurs. Reflect on what triggered the urge, write down what was eaten or craved, and note feelings before, during, and after eating. Pay attention to patterns that emerge and start identifying healthier ways to manage your feelings.


2. Get Adequate Sleep: Poor sleep has been linked to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion and decreases in mood and life satisfaction. Commit to better sleeping habits to improve energy, physical health, psychological well-being, motivation, and appetite /weight management.


3. Exercise: Regular exercise has been linked to enhanced mood, decreases in anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue, increases in well-being, alertness, clear thinking, energy, stress reduction, positive self-concept and higher quality of life. Integrate regular exercise into your daily routine to receive maximum benefits.


4. Nutrition: A balanced diet plays a role in the development, management, and prevention of specific physical and mental health problems including depression, and has been linked to mood, well-being and cognitive ability. Focus on non-processed foods.


5. Relaxation: Practicing relaxation may improve the ability to effectively cope, reduce reliance on eating for comfort, and manage stress and negative mood. Try deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or any other calming activity.


6. Socialize: Positive, meaningful social interactions are sources of support, involvement and encouragement that have been linked to positive mental health outcomes. Having a hobby, spending time with friends and family, and volunteering can be healthy sources for social connection.


The most effective way to manage emotion-based eating behaviors is to commit to improving and maintaining sleep hygiene, exercise, nutrition, relaxation, social connection and practice of healthy coping strategies. Practice prevention by knowing triggers and having a plan in place when triggers occur. If concern exists after practicing stress and/or emotional management techniques or if the concern causes significant distress, additional support may be needed.


Iowa Weight Loss Specialists offers a variety of informational resources as well as supportive weight-loss programs that can be accessed at any point of your weight loss journey.

Contact us or call to make an appointment.  




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