Rapid change in weight? Feeling more stressed than usual? These can be signs of emotional eating.
The pandemic has been going on two years and counting, so it’s not surprising that many of us have turned to snacking to cope. But experts say emotional eating can negatively impact health.
Emotional eating is a stress management tool in which you choose eating over other, healthier ways to soothe stress, said Karyn Skleney, a nurse practitioner with Advocate Medical Group Bariatric Medicine and Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, IL. This problem can occur at any age and can go on forever, she said.
“Stress is something you experience throughout your life,” Skleney said. “It can come and go anytime. The same is true for emotional eating. You are likely eating because of your emotions, not because you are hungry.”
Stress can come from many places, including work and family, so if you find yourself reaching for an unhealthy snack, something high calorie or high in carbohydrates, you’re probably emotional eating and looking to food as a way to comfort yourself when you’re feeling down or having negative emotions, Skleney said.
But using food as a reward or binging in times of celebration could also be a sign of emotional eating, she said. While it’s normal to indulge in an occasional treat, regular, unhealthy eating habits can be a sign of something more, she said. Other signs of emotional eating are weight gain and eating when you’re not hungry.
One of the most important steps in assessing the root cause of emotional eating is professional counseling, Skleney said. Therapy can also be beneficial for those looking to adopt healthier behaviors to cope with emotions. A primary care doctor is a good first resource in recommending a therapist or other mental health professional depending on the individual’s treatment needs.
For those simply looking to improve their eating habits in times of stress, Skleney suggests reaching for healthy food choices. She also suggests keeping a food diary to not only record the kinds of food consumed, but also track how often someone is eating and their emotions beforehand. Even just general journaling about feelings can help manage overall stress and curb emotional eating, she added.
Skleney also recommends finding other coping mechanisms like having an exercise routine or doing an activity that will otherwise occupy your mind. These practices also help to reduce stress and improve overall health.
“Everyone will fall off a bit and make less healthy food choices from time to time,” she said. “Give yourself a break. If you’re already taking care of your body, try not to stress about stress eating. It’s about consistency not perfection.”