October 30, 2014
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Weight Management

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Mind over matter: emotional eating

Does this scenario sound familiar: You had a bad day at work, got into an argument with your partner over the phone, and then got stuck in traffic on the way home? And now that you're finally home, you can hardly wait to put on your sweats and dig into that carton of double chocolate chip ice cream or that bag of chips in your cupboard?

Or how about this one: You're sitting at home with nothing particular to do, and so you go rooting around your kitchen cupboards, just to see what's there. Before you know it, you find yourself sitting at the kitchen table with an empty bag of cookies in front of you.

Quick! Before you take that bite, have you thought about why you are eating? There are a whole host of reasons aside from hunger that prompt people to eat - boredom, sadness, nervousness, anxiety, stress, even happiness. But if you look at what these things all have in common, it's that they are emotions, and not signals of your body's need for nourishment.

While we are programmed to eat as a result of feeling hungry, many people also feel an urge to eat certain foods when they experience certain emotions, or when they find themselves in certain settings. Often, the foods of choice in these cases are "forbidden foods" - the same fat- and calorie-laden foods you try to resist while on a diet.

The first step to overcoming so-called emotional eating is to learn the difference between emotional and physical hunger cues.

Here are some clues that can help you tell the difference:

  • Are you craving something specific? If you really are hungry, you'll likely find a host of foods to be satisfying. But if it's a craving, only specific foods will fill the void.
  • Does the craving pass? Hunger doesn't go away until you've had something to eat, while cravings sometimes (but not always) pass.
  • How hungry are you really? It may seem obvious, but next time you are tempted to chow down, stop and rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10. By forcing yourself to think about how hungry you actually are, you can learn to identify instances where you are eating for reasons other than hunger.
  • When was the last time you ate? If it's been hours, you may truly be hungry. But if you just finished dinner, it may be a case of emotional eating.

Keeping a food journal and jotting down your mood every time you eat can help you learn to identify situations where you're eating for emotional reasons and not because you're hungry.

But now that you've learned to identify your emotional eating triggers, what can you do when you're faced with a situation that makes you want to eat for all the wrong reasons?

  • Exercise. OK, working out may be the last thing you want to do, but exercise can be a 2-front attack against emotional eating: firstly, exercise has been shown to have positive effects on stress and depression. Secondly, if you've just had a tough workout, you may be less likely to want to undo that hard work with a fattening treat.
  • Indulge, but in moderation. Sometimes, nothing else but a piece of chocolate or another treat will do. Instead of suffering through the craving or eating a bunch of different healthy snacks that just don't do the trick, treat yourself - but savour a small portion rather than pigging out.
  • Make a list of feel-good alternatives. If you often turn to food to bring yourself up when you're down, make a list of pick-me-ups that aren't related to food. Some suggestions: calling a friend, getting a manicure, or reading a magazine.
  • Wait it out. Sometimes cravings pass. Hunger won't. So if you're tempted, wait 20 minutes and see if you're still in the mood to indulge.
 
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team 

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