Emotional & Habitual Eating

Emotional & Habitual Eating

August 9, 2012

“Emotional & Habitual Eating”

Written By: Sandra

Dear Readers:

We all have food cravings, and a lot of times these food cravings are triggered when you see your favorite food or snack on a shelf or in the kitchen. We also relate certain foods to certain events. For example, you might relate ice-cream to the summer time, or you might relate a particular brand of wine to a romantic dinner you once had. These types of food cravings and food relations are very normal.

However, some of us may experience the strongest food cravings at our weakest, emotional point. This is called “emotional eating”. Emotional eating can occur when you experience a loss of a job, a loss of a loved one, health problems, financial issues, relationship conflicts, loneliness, boredom, or from stress at work. Emotional eating can trigger other problems, including weight gain. Weight gain occurs because we usually choose comfort foods such sweets, fatty foods, and high calorie/high carbohydrate type of snacks.

When we eat foods high in sugar, our body releases dopamine (which is a chemical from the brain). This part of the brain, where dopamine is stored, is called “the pleasure center”. And the more we feed our body with sugar, the more dopamine the brain makes. It’s like a constant voice in the brain telling us to eat snacks when we are emotionally unstable. So we must learn to control this part of the brain, and not let it control us!

So how do we keep emotional eating under control, or prevent it all together? Just like emotional eating is triggered by the brain, we must train the brain to think differently. We must “intervene” and change our actions. Here are some ways to control or prevent emotional eating:

1. Redirection: Before putting a “comfort food” in your mouth, ask yourself if you are actually hungry. Most of the time, we are not hungry (95% of the time). You just want a quick fix of something sweet or unhealthy to eat to make you feel better. So put the comfort food down and redirect your attention to something else. You can turn on your favorite music, read your favorite book, or watch your favorite TV show.

2. Food Exchange: If you ARE actually hungry, then think about “what” you are putting into your mouth. Read the food label first! Most of the time, you will get turned off by how much saturated fat and/or sugar is in that snack.  Choose a healthier snack to eat, such as fruit, yogurt, nuts, whole grain toast, raisins, granola, oatmeal, jello, whole grain crackers, or a low-fat cheese stick.

3. Support: Choose someone close to you that will most likely be available for phone talk. So when you have the urge to emotionally eat, you call a friend or family member instead. You can talk to that person about what you are going through and, most of the time, this redirection will work.

4. Be Active: Instead of giving in to your food craving, choose something active to do. You can exercise, ride your bike, play a tennis (or whatever sport you enjoy), swim, walk the dog, plant flowers, clean the house, or go for a long walk in a peaceful or scenic place.

5. Knowledge: Keeping in mind that emotional eating is never really because of physical hunger; we should not act on it. Emotional eating comes on suddenly, whereas physical hunger occurs gradually. So if you eat something unhealthy when emotionally weak, your emotional issues will not go away. Remember that!

6. Keep a Journal: If you are having an emotional food craving, write your feelings and issues down on paper instead of eating. You can keep a journal on your emotional patterns and try to find ways to tackle them. Psychologically, when we see something on paper, it becomes more clear. So instead of burying your issues in food, try to find ways to solve them. You might want to call a counselor to assist you with the necessary steps.

Some people actually eat less during emotional stress. On the reverse side, not eating during tough times can cause other health problems, such as vitamin deficiencies, a decrease in bone density, and stomach acid issues.

So what is habitual eating? Habitual eating is something we do out of pure habit, and most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it. As explained earlier, we relate certain foods to certain events. Another example of habitual eating is consuming popcorn at the movie theater. Even if we are not hungry, it is just something most people want to eat at the movie theater. How about when you watch your favorite shows at home at night? You might relate certain snacks to television nights. Habitual eating is repeated many times though; it is a pattern. These patterns become fixed in the brain. And most of the time, we are not even hungry. Habitual eating can cause weight gain, which can cause feelings of guilt and eventually health issues.

Habitual eating can also be traditional. For example, Italians eat large meals on Sundays, and Latin cultures consume a lot of rice and beans. So the portions of food can be habitual. These large portions of food can cause weight gain and bloating. Are we really hungry for those larger portions? Have you ever finished your plate even though you were already full half-way through your plate of food? That is a habit as well. If we can control these portions, we can control our mind and prevent weight gain.

Here are some ways to break habitual eating:

1. Food Exchange: If you usually eat popcorn or other non-nutritious snacks at the movies, bring your own snacks instead! Bring something more nutritious like fruit, yogurt, dried fruit, pretzels, whole wheat crackers, peanut butter sandwich, granola bar, protein bar, a smoothie, or nuts. Try the same healthy eating when watching television at night.

2. Portion Control: If you cook traditional foods, use a smaller plate (like a salad plate), instead of a large dinner plate.

3. Redirection: Before you eat something out of habit, ask yourself if you are actually hungry. A lot of times habitual eating is not because you are physically hungry. An example of this is having a donut with your coffee. Some people cannot drink coffee unless they eat something sweet with it, even if they are not really hungry. So if you are not actually hungry, redirect yourself to an activity instead of eating. An activity doesn’t always have to be active, it could be relaxing too.  Relaxing activities are reading a book, drawing, sewing, and playing a board game.

4. Break the Habit: If you have a habit of stopping at a 711 store or a deli (or someplace where you buy a favorite snack or fast food), take another route home!  Carry nutritious food with you in the car so that you don’t make those habitual stops.

Emotional and habitual eating can be very satisfying, but only temporarily. If you can train your brain to think that way, you might think twice about eating when you are not actually hungry. Trying to solve your issues will help as well! If you have any questions regarding this topic, please feel free to email me at info@wellnessbysandra.com. Have a happy and healthy week!



National Health & Wellness Club (1999). Food for Health & Healing, Special Edition. Meredith Corporation: Des Moines, IA

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