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Emotional Eating: What It Is and How to Deal with It

“They’re just donuts. They’re not love.”

How many times have we heard this statement in a movie or a TV show, often said in jest to a person eating his or her way out of loneliness? The line may sound tacky, corny even, but behind it is a real struggle. Some people do consider food as way to fulfill emotional needs. They engage in compulsive eating when they’re sad, angry, lonely or afraid. They use food to substitute a lack in their life, such as affection from a parent or success in work or school. When food is used to manage emotions, a person is said to be emotional eating.”

The Problematic

All of us emotional eat to some extent. After all, eating is a pleasurable endeavor. Ever had that cheesecake after a bad day, or attacked that tub of ice cream after a break-up?

But while there’s nothing wrong with eating not just for nutrition but also for the positive feelings food brings, we have to be careful that eating does not become a habitual coping response for emotions we have trouble facing. When we use food to regulate our mood --- such as raiding the refrigerator whenever we feel rejected --- we don’t get to develop the coping muscles needed to navigate life. We also don’t get to face our problems functionally, which means that whatever is causing our distress remains boiling under the surface. But most alarming, we end up suffering from serious health issues, such overweight, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and bulimia.

Conquering Emotional Eating

Do you suspect that you’re an emotional eater? If yes, consider the following tips:

Identify your triggers. The first step in breaking free from emotional eating is to identify the particular emotions that push you towards a dysfunctional relationship with food. Start a diary. For a week, document not just what you eat and how much you eat, but also what you’re thinking and feeling (a) immediately before, (b) during and (c) immediately after a meal.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, after careful study of your diary, you’ll spot patterns you need to break. Does stress cause you to binge on sweets? Is a particular fast food chain your go-to place whenever somebody makes a hurtful comment about your appearance? Are you mostly depressed when at home alone at night? Avoid your triggers. Better yet, learn better ways of coping with the things that give you stress. A counselor or a trusted friend can help you come up with coping styles that will not send you to the hospital or an early grave.

Consult an M.D. You have to find out, as soon as possible, what kind of damage you’ve done to your body. Emotional eating is an automatic response; it’s done without much of your awareness. Hence, you may not have had time to sit down and assess the link between your physical symptoms (e.g. shortness of breath, poor immune response) and your eating habits. Invest in getting all the tests done --- you owe it to yourself. More importantly, seek advice on how you can restore your body into a healthy state. Come up with a weight management plan that you can practice.

Join a support group. Like with most other mental health conditions, it helps to know that you’re not alone. Admitting that you’ve been emotional eating can make you feel ashamed, embarrassed and depressed, so much so that you would rather keep the problem to yourself than seek professional assistance. But if you know that your situation is not that unique --- more so, that there are people who have successfully recovered from emotional eating --- then you’ll feel encouraged, even if the road is bumpier than anticipated. Finding a support group for emotional eating is as easy as a quick search engine query. You may even start one yourself if you feel it’s a need of your family and/or community.

Come up with a control plan. You can make emotional eating almost impossible for you to do! Make sure your fridge is free from your comfort foods --- stop making those midnight sojourns to the kitchen so productive! Deposit extra money to the bank --- hey, if you can’t afford to visit that restaurant, you’ll have no choice but to actually face your demons, right? And invite a trusted friend to be an accountability partner; this person will give you support when you’re down and a push when you’re slacking off. Just make sure that your accountability partner doesn’t have the same problem that you do --- or else you’ll both be in trouble!

Lastly, love yourself. At the end of the day, emotional eating can be best addressed by the certainty that you’re a person of worth and value. If you’ve found that no one cares about you, the very least you can do is care for yourself. Start with a daily dose of self-affirmation: “I am loved, and I deserve to be loved.” Follow it up with the company of people who care just emit positive vibes. (If you don’t know anyone optimistic by nature, the start introducing yourself to people!) And as icing on the cake, make sure you work on things you’re passionate about. You’ll have no need for emotional eating when you can find fulfillment in the simple things in life.

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