Tu Salud Si Cuenta: Emotional Eating

Appeared in Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star on December 12, 2010

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

During the holidays emotions and stress are heightened. This is not always a negative, yet it is a reality, and a good time to take stock of how our emotions dictate our behavior.  Many of us could define ourselves as “emotional eaters”.  While this doesn’t sound very scientific, behavioral scientists and nutrition experts have found that environmental “cues”, or emotional states, can encourage eating for non-hunger reasons. This type of emotionally-triggered eating can affect our health and well-being and experts estimate that it causes over 75% of over-eating in this culture.

What does emotional eating look like? For many people it means that food provides a type of comfort during a time of emotional stress, such as loss, fear, anger and even boredom. Some signs that you are eating in response to emotions and not hunger include the following:

  • Your hunger comes on strong, all at once and you feel like you need to eat immediately. Physical hunger usually comes on gradually.
  • You crave a specific food (“I have to eat some chocolate or pizza!”). Physical hunger is not so specific and can be relieved with numerous types of nutrients, yummy or not.
  • When you feel physically full, you keep eating, even after you have consumed more than the necessary calories to produce the energy you expend throughout the day.
  • You have feelings of guilt after you eat.

Okay, so now that we have all diagnosed ourselves what can we do? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends three simple steps:  Reflect, replace and reinforce.

REFLECT on all of your specific eating habits, both bad and good; and, your common triggers for unhealthy eating. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate a few hours ago you are probably not really hungry. Keep a food diary to see connections between your “mood and food”. Identify and anticipate stressful days of week, seasons of the year, visits from family members, or other triggers for stress.

REPLACE your unhealthy eating habits with healthier ones. Get support from friends and family—even co-workers. Call a friend or family member to talk about stress and emotions instead of sitting alone with a bag of chips. Find activities that help manage your stress like exercise, walking, yoga, dance, meditation and/or prayer. Get enough sleep and drink enough water. Often when we think we are “hungry” we are just exhausted or thirsty. When you are bored, get outside, play with a pet, call a friend—do anything but eat—until you can identify if you are really hungry or just bored.

REINFORCE your new, healthier eating habits. Reward yourself (not with food) with positive words or a healthy gift when you have avoided emotional eating for a week, a month, etc. Take away the temptation by removing the foods you tend to turn to for comfort from your home so it takes more effort to eat as an emotional response. Don’t deprive yourself of food. Eat regular meals, healthy snacks, and if you do eat for emotional reasons one day, start over the next day. Be positive and forward-thinking. Tell your loved-ones about your struggles and successes.

It is always recommended that you talk with your doctor, and seek therapy or counseling if you feel that you have an eating disorder, or any other physical or mental health issue. During this holiday season of high emotions, stress, work and family expectations, give yourself the gift of some time to reflect on how your feelings dictate your eating behavior. Use the steps above (reflect, replace and reinforce) as your guide to making healthier decisions about food and stress, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)