Emotional eating; it’s a relatively common behaviour that can have unwanted effects on weight. Not only has it been associated with weight gain over time, emotional eating has also been shown to inhibit weight loss in those trying to lose weight. So what can you do about it if emotional eating is something you struggle with? Here are some suggestions to get started.
- Find an alternative way to cope with the emotions that lead you to eat
Eating is a way to make yourself feel better in response to negative emotions you may be experiencing. One way you can try to eliminate this response is to find an alternative that doesn’t involve eating. Try to think of something else that will help you to cope. Maybe it means going outside to get some fresh air, or calling up a close friend to confide in. The bonus of engaging in these types of activities is that they will likely help you to feel better in the long term. Although eating may make you feel better in the moment, the guilt and regret that follows can often make you feel even worse later.
- Address the cause of the emotions in the first place and work to find solutions
Emotional eating occurs because we are experiencing some sort of distress that we want to soothe. It follows that in order to target emotional eating, one of the best things to do is to address why you are having these negative emotions in the first place. Whether it be relationship distress, or tough times at work, it is best to get to the root of the problem so you can try to reduce emotional eating as a secondary outcome.
- Try to sit with your emotions, rather than acting on them by eating
This may sound abstract, but just because you are feeling a certain way doesn’t mean that you have to immediately respond to this. Urge surfing is a technique that involves learning to sit with your emotions, without doing anything at all. Rather, try to watch your emotions as they rise and fall. You can rate the intensity of the emotions as you go. As you sit and watch, you may find that your emotions lessen their intensity on their own over time, without you having to eat. It takes practice, but it may help you to see that your distress is more bearable than you think.
- Assess your values and how emotional eating relates to them
One way we can try and commit to behaviour change is to assess our values. In other words, if we know what is important to us, it is easy to act in ways that support this. For example, you may value your health and want to lose weight to improve this. Emotional eating is inconsistent with the value you place on your health because it can lead to weight gain. Remembering your values in the moment can help stop you from reaching for that box of cookies or bag of chips when you are feeling down because it helps you to see the greater picture and put things in perspective.
- Put space between wanting to eat and actually eating
Emotional eating can be a very impulsive behaviour. It isn’t often that you think to yourself, “I’m about to eat because I’m feeling sad, and I really shouldn’t be doing this.” Next time you are tempted to eat when emotional, remember the acronym “BOLD” which stands for “Breathe”, “Observe”, “Listen”, “Decide.” First, before eating, take a minute to breathe and try to calm yourself. Observe how you are feeling. Are you tired, tense, nervous, or anxious? Next, listen to your values. What is important to you and how does emotional eating related to this? Then decide what you want to do. If emotional eating isn’t consistent with your values, it’s good incentive not to do it.
Written by: Mallory Frayn, PhD student in Clinical Psychology at McGill University and researcher in the Health Psychology Laboratory.