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Emotional eating

Published:Thursday | June 28, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Emotional eating is usually driven by a desire for sweet things such as cakes and ice cream. - File

Heather Little-White, PhD, Contributor

We eat to feed our bodies, respond to hunger signals but more importantly, to feed a feeling, according to Heather Hatfield in a WebMD feature. Food will do more than just replenish the system but will also feed your feelings. You will go for your favourite ice cream, pizza, chicken and chips or black forest cake to feel happy.

This is known as emotional eating, which is more than responding to hunger signs. It is a condition in which large portions of food, usually 'junk', is consumed.

It is estimated that 75 per cent of overeating is caused by emotions, which leads to ill-health including weight gain and obesity. When you eat and you are not hungry, the body will not need the extra calories, and these get stored as fat which can lead to obesity.

Comfort foods are eaten to obtain or maintain a feeling, especially a good feeling. But people tend to eat these foods when they are feeling low or depressed to soothe emotions. It is easy to become addicted to comfort foods. Consuming these foods then becomes a habit and prevents you from learning the skills needed to heal the emotions.

According to WebMD, there is a distinct difference between emotional eating and eating because you are hungry.

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly while physical hunger occurs gradually.

2. When you are eating to fill a void that is not related to hunger, you will crave for a specific food such as ice cream or chocolates. When you eat because you are hungry, you will have balanced meals.

3. Even when you are full you may have a craving for a particular food to meet your emotional needs, compared to when you can stop eating because of hunger.

4. When eat for emotional satisfaction, you will experience feelings of guilt.

Triggers to emotional eating

It is important to identify what triggers the need to overeat or eat comfort foods. These five factors are:

Emotional: eating in response to emotions like tension, anger, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Social: being around others at social events and feeling the need to 'fit in' with the crowd.

Situational: seizing an opportunity to eat or to associate with certain events like cook-offs or food sampling at events.

Thoughts: as a result of negative sense of self and feelings of hopelessness, you make excuses for eating.

Physiological: eating in response to physical symptoms such as hunger and pain

Kick the habit:

Keep a food diary and record your feelings at the time of overeating. You should see a pattern developing over time. Occupy yourself with other interesting activities until the urge to overeat passes. suggests that you:

  • Take a walk
  • Engage in a hobby like reading, writing, listening to music, or gardening
  • Wash the car
  • Do some housework
  • Take a luxurious bubble bath or get a manicure and pedicure
  • Call a friend

Exercise moderation if you must have comfort foods by dividing the foods into smaller portions and use one portion at a time. Eating raw foods and vegetarian meals are menu ideas to overcome emotional eating. These are foods high in fibre and provide bulk to give satiety, and so you would tend to crave and eat less of the fattening comfort foods.

If you are really unable to kick the habit, you may have to seek counselling and or use relaxation techniques or engage in activities like meditation. You will also have to set nutrition weight-management goals to redirect your food choices to wholesome living.