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Emotional Eating

Kitty Finklea, RD, AFAA-CPT

Food is meant for nourishment and enjoyment but sometimes it can become a distraction from other things, a habit, or an outlet for our emotions. Food doesn’t talk back, and it tastes great, plus, food can be comforting, refreshing and satisfying – pumpkin spice in the fall, hot chili on a cold evening, the crunch of a chip or the smooth creaminess of ice cream. These sensations are a fun distraction, making it easy to eat too much. Our food consumption can get out of control and it can become easy to chew through emotions instead of actually dealing with them. Out of control eating also can increase the risk of eating disorders including binge eating disorder and bulimia.

By becoming more mindful of hunger and fullness as well as identifying what is really going on – boredom, depression, anger, or frustration – you can learn to develop new tools to deal with emotional hunger.

Here are options to help deal with emotional hunger:

  • Assess physical hunger. Skipping meals or going more than 4-5 hours between meals can trigger emotional eating. If your stomach is growling and/or you haven’t eaten in several hours, it is time to eat. Physical hunger increases cravings and over-rides common sense and willpower, so make sure to consume regular meals and snacks.
  • Include protein and fiber in your meal and snack plans. Protein foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts and cheese, along with high fiber foods such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains keep you full longer and can help decrease the cravings that come with emotional eating.
  • Figure out what you really need. If you’re not physically hungry what is eating you? If you’re bored find something to do, if you’re stressed accomplish something – clean, run an errand, organize something or do something physically active. If you’re emotionally distraught, call a friend, commune with nature or develop other strategies that help comfort you such as music, journaling or engaging in a fun hobby.
  • Eat until full, not stuffed. The mouth never gets tired of tasting and many Americans listen to the ever-hungry mouth instead of feelings of fullness in the stomach. Start listening to how your body feels when pleasantly full and aim to push back from food when satisfied instead of stuffed.
  • Keep trigger foods out of the house. Trigger foods are foods that call your name until they are all gone! (Think chips or ice cream.) If you have to have snacks or treats in the house for other family members, purchase foods they like that don’t trigger you. Also remember that processed foods tend to be the “go to” foods for emotional eating, so stock up on whole foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein instead of junk and sweets.
  • Nix open container eating. If you sit in front of the TV or computer with an open bag of food like crackers, nuts, chips and ice cream, this promotes mindless grazing until the container is empty! Measure out a portion and put the container away.
  • Eat without distractions. Eating in front of screens and while driving can decrease awareness of taste and fullness. Work on eating at a table and focus on food and conversation with family and friends instead of screens. If you do eat alone or find yourself in front of a screen, stay mindful. Stop eating for a minute or two and focus on flavors and when you have feelings of fullness.
  • Slow down rate of eating. Emotional eating is usually fast eating. There could be an urge to “get rid of the evidence” or “stuff down emotions” with food. By becoming more mindful and listening to thoughts without judgement, shame or guilt you can get to the root of the problem and deal with it as opposed to using food to cope.

If you consider yourself an emotional eater try one of the suggestions listed above and slowly add others over time. It takes mindfulness and practice to make peace with food but the process is so worth the effort.

Kitty Finklea, RD, AFAA-CPT, is a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Diabetes and Nutrition Center in the HopeHealth Medical Plaza, Florence, and an Athletics and Fitness Association of America certified personal trainer. She received a degree in dietetics from Winthrop College and specializes in diabetes, weight management, and eating disorders.


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