Understanding Emotional Overeating

A senior woman tempted by a plate of chocolate chip cookies and milk.

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Have you ever hit the chips or ice cream hard when you’re feeling stressed? Well, you’re not alone. According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association (APA), thirty-eight percent of adults in the United States said they had overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the previous month due to stress.

Eating because you feel stress, or any other emotion like depression or anxiety, is a way of using food to cope with feelings; this is called emotional eating. To a certain extent, everyone is an emotional eater, but when it becomes out of control and impedes your health goals and your ability to feel and look your best, then it’s called emotional overeating, which is problematic. But don’t blame yourself, look at it as your body alerting you to an issue in your life that you need to pay more attention to, because there is always a root cause for emotional overeating.

Many experts agree that chronic emotional overeating is a form of addiction and should be treated with the same compassion (and expertise) you would have for a friend struggling with a drug addiction. People use food to make themselves feel better, and foods high in fat, sugar and salt can become especially addictive. According to studies by the Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), research has found that the feel-good brain chemical dopamine is released when people eat tasty foods, typically, again, those foods high in fat, sugar, and salt – also known as comfort foods. These comfort foods often become more enticing when a person is under stress or in poor spirits.  

But these are not necessarily the only causes of food addiction, there may be other factors, and often are, such as a person’s biological vulnerability and social isolation. Whatever the cause or causes may be, in our challenging world today it’s easy to understand why so many people turn to food for comfort more than they should health-wise. If you fall into this category, a suggested first step to take is identify your emotional eating triggers; is there a person in your life who sets you off and the next thing you know you’re bingeing on sweets? Or maybe you overeat every time after you drive because of a past automobile accident that traumatized you?

By understanding the core reason for your emotional overeating and focusing on healing that issue instead of focusing on not overeating, you can begin to change your relationship with food in a healthy way and learn new, positive coping strategies to ensure the negative cycle doesn’t continue. And you may need some help to do this – many people do. If that’s the case, one action you can take is to consult a mental health professional; talk therapy at its best can work wonders. Another wonderful resource is Overeaters Anonymous (OA), a free 12-step program that describes itself as “a community of people who through shared experience, strength and hope are recovering from unhealthy relationships with food and body image.” Meetings are held at different venues throughout the United States. For more information, visit https://oa.org

In addition, below are some steps from experts, including the Mayo Clinic, that you can begin to take today to better cope with your emotional overeating:

  1. Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are.
  2. Have a hunger reality check. Meaning, is your body actually hungry or is it just out of habit that you’re eating another snack while watching your favorite television program?
  3. Get support. Connect with others who are also grappling with overeating and connect with mental health professionals in your community.
  4. Fight boredom. Sometimes people eat simply because they’re bored. Keep yourself occupied and choose activities you genuinely enjoy so you’ll stick to them.
    Take away temptation. As in, don’t keep secret stashes of junk food around ‘just in case.’
  5. Don’t deprive yourself. If you allow yourself a sliver of chocolate cake instead of cutting it out of your diet altogether, you’re much more likely to stick to said-diet.
  6. Snack healthy.
  7. Treat yourself to something special, like a massage, when you do lose a few pounds – in a healthy way (no crash diets).
  8. Have compassion for yourself.

This information is for educational purposes. Please consult your physician for any medical issues. The Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) is committed to bringing trusted and quality home health, hospice and private care to Indian River County patients. For more information about VNA services, call 772-494-6161 or visit www.vnatc.com

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