As humans, the relationship between our feelings and food is closely linked. This includes a whole variety of different emotions - we celebrate life events or successes with an indulgent meal, but might also turn to the Ben and Jerry’s after a break up or a stressful day at work. Even more neutral feelings like boredom can lead us to eating to pick at foods we don’t really need.
So why do we use food to regulate our emotions? Well, it all starts when we are very young. As babies, milk is used to soothe us when we are upset. As children, we are often rewarded with sweet treats for good behaviour, or even for finishing a meal. Negative associations with food can also be learned, for example if a parent is restrictive of certain food groups if they are dieting, or being forced to finish your plate. Over time, these experiences can lead us to associate certain emotions with food, and can lead to emotional eating.
Taking comfort in food can become a default response to negative feelings; if we are stressed or upset our brain instructs us to eat. This is emotional eating, and it can lead to the feelings themselves not being addressed. Often, there is a temporary relief from the negative emotions, but the issue itself has not been tackled. It is important to be able to identify negative emotions, express them and manage them appropriately to avoid falling into a pattern of emotional eating.
How can you manage emotional eating?
1. Identify your triggers. If you are able to recognise the emotions that cause you to reach for comfort food, you can find other ways to manage these feelings. Keeping a food and feelings diary helps to identify your emotional eating patterns, and understanding this will help you better manage it.
2. Express yourself.
When you recognise you are feeling upset, stressed or anxious find an outlet. You could talk to a friend or family member, or even just write it down.
When you experience negative feelings, recognise them and try to engage your brain with something else. For example, go for a short walk or listen to music. With time, you might even find that you can train your brain to engage in a positive activity when you experience negative emotions.
4. Reduce temptation
If you are aware that you struggle to avoid binge eating at certain times, for example busy periods at work or for women during the time of the month, try to make sure there are plenty of healthy choices and reduce the amount of junk food you have in your home – it’s far easier to avoid foods that aren’t staring at you from the cupboard!
5. Tackle the cause
Now this might feel like an obvious one, but if you are comfort eating because you are stressed or upset by a specific situation, think of ways in which you can resolve it.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways in which you can help yourself, but hopefully will be a good starting point for you. Sometimes problems with your relationship with food can be rooted in deeper issues, so if you feel you are struggling, seeking help from a psychologist or doctor might be needed.