Emotional eating: When what's eating at you makes you overeat

October 25, 2010

Emotional eating can be unhealthy

Do you sometimes come home from a hard day at work and head straight for the ice cream? Have you ever been bored and found yourself snacking on potato chips without even thinking about it until the bag was empty? There are many reasons besides hunger that we eat. When those reasons involve stress, sadness, boredom, conflicts or fatigue, it's called emotional eating.

Emotional eating can wreck a healthy diet or a weight-loss plan. An article from the University of Maryland that's quoted on WebMD states that as much as 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. It's such a problem that researchers at the Temple University Center for Obesity Research are trying to figure out the answer as part of a weight-loss study being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that, without even thinking about it, you may reach for a sweet treat when you're sad, angry or stressed. Or, you may use food to take your mind off a problem. That can start an unhealthy cycle in which your feelings trigger you to overeat, you feel bad about it, and feeling bad causes you to overeat again.

The good news is that you can take control of emotional eating. And here are seven tips that can help.

  • Keep a food diary - By writing down what you eat, how much you eat and what your feelings are at the time, you'll begin to see patterns that can help you see what triggers you to eat for emotional reasons.
  • Ask yourself if you're really hungry - When you're tempted to eat between meals or to keep eating after a meal is over, take the time to think about whether or not you are physically hungry. If you're not, do something else until the craving passes.
  • Make a list of things you can do besides eat, and then do them - Be ready to head off the craving. Take a walk, work a puzzle, call a friend, fold the laundry or read a magazine. A list of activities that take your mind off eating can come in handy.
  • Don't leave leftovers sitting around - If you are often tempted to keep snacking or to go back for seconds even after you're full, wrap up the leftovers and put them away before you sit down to eat in the first place.
  • Take away temptation - Don't keep comfort foods in your home if they're too hard to resist. And if you feel angry or blue, put off that trip to the grocery until you have your feelings in check.
  • Pay attention to your food - When you do eat, don't wolf your food down. Eat slowly. It takes your brain about 15 minutes to get the message that your stomach is full. Sit at the table and enjoy it rather than eating out of the refrigerator or while watching TV. You're more likely to notice when you're full if you're not thinking about something else.
  • Get enough sleep - According to nutrition experts at the Mayo Clinic, if you're always tired, you might snack to try to give yourself an energy boost. Take a nap or go to bed earlier instead.

      If these tips don't give you the help you need, think about getting therapy. It can help you understand the reasons behind your emotional eating and offer you new skills to deal with it. Therapy can also help you learn whether you may have an eating disorder, which is sometimes connected to emotional eating.

      To learn more about how to control emotional eating, contact your healthcare provider.

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