How to curb your emotional eating
It’s the day after Halloween, and already, that bowl of leftover candy has started talking to you. Well, not literally, but for many people, those “fun” sized candy bars and other sweets seem to be whispering “Go ahead…I’m small…don’t let me go to waste.”
The temptation is even stronger, experts say, if you’ve had a bad day or are experiencing other strong emotions. The American Psychological Association conducted a survey of licensed psychologists and found that 92 percent of those who provided weight loss counseling spent time helping their client address underlying emotional issues related to weight gain.
“’Comfort food’ is a familiar phrase to most of us precisely because we have learned that eating can help us feel better,” says Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn, an Advocate Medical Group clinical psychologist with Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Bloomington-Normal, Ill.
“As a result, we learn to engage in emotional eating,” she says. “However, emotional eating tends to also have longer-term adverse consequences, such as weight gain, high cholesterol and mood swings.”
Dr. Woodburn notes that even briefly felt mood states, such as anger, loneliness, sadness and anxiety appear to cause an actual loss of control over eating.
“One of the first steps toward healthy eating is to monitor one’s mood state to determine if the desire to eat is due to physical hunger or emotional or spiritual hunger,” she says. “This may take a significant amount of regular and persistent self-observation.”
Dr. Woodburn offers a number of healthy emotional management strategies to help you understand your desire to eat and to counteract emotional eating:
- Do an emotional self-check once an hour and anytime you want to eat to help determine what is driving your hunger.
- Delay/distract – sometimes simply delaying eating or distracting yourself can stave off emotional eating.
- Do something active instead – take a walk, ride a bike, practice yoga. “These activities also trigger the release of ‘feel good’ chemicals in our bodies,” she says.
- Journaling about how you are feeling and what you are thinking before you eat may help you identify if you are wanting to eat to manage feelings.
- Do something with your hands – work on a craft or play a musical instrument, for example. “The arts can be a powerful means of emotional expression,” says Dr. Woodburn. “As a bonus, it’s harder to eat when your hands are doing something else.”
- Talk to someone.
- Pet or talk to a pet. Research shows that interacting with pets is good for emotional health and can be calming.
And while it might seem contradictory, eating regularly and healthily can help counteract emotional eating. “Eating regularly – every few hours – helps to regulate metabolism, blood sugar levels and mood,” Dr. Woodburn says.
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