There appears to be both biological and psychological mechanisms that explain why emotions cause us to overeat.
Biologically speaking, certain emotions – usually negative emotions like stress, anger, or sadness – increase the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for enhancing our appetite and telling the brain that we crave hyperpalatable foods.
This extra secretion of cortisol therefore encourages people to overeat.
Psychologically, negative emotions aren’t nice to experience. We often find ourselves using food as a coping mechanism because it brings us immediate relief however this relief doesn’t last and we are usually left with other emotions such as guilt and regret.
The ability to stop and consider your long term goals in the moment and prioritise them over short term satisfaction is a skill to be developed.
There are many factors that are responsible for explaining why some people over consume when it comes to emotional eating, such as dieting status, body image perceptions, personality traits, and genetics.
All of these factors interact to cause people to emotionally eat. Unfortunately there is not one simple answer to this.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
1. Identify the Culprit Emotions
The first thing you need to do is to effectively identify which emotions are causing you to overeat.
Consider writing a journal for a week or two. Write down in detail the types of emotions you’ve experienced during the day, why you experienced them, what you wanted to do about them, and whether or not they caused you to overeat. This is a reflective exercise.
2. Feed your Emotions with Something Else
Find other, healthier ways to fill the void.
Some great examples to have at your disposal whenever you feel an urge to emotionally eat can be:
Telephone a friend
Watch a movie
Read a book
Go for a walk
Go for a massage
Take a hot bath
Meditation or other mindfulness exercises are excellent strategies for addressing emotional eating.
The reason for this is that meditation forces you to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental fashion. This directly combats emotional eating as it prevents you from acting out impulsively on any emotion you might experience from day-to-day.
4. Make Easy Lifestyle Changes
Some evidence-based lifestyle changes to work on include regular physical activity, sufficient sleep quality and quantity, limiting alcohol consumption, and spending as much time with loved ones as possible.
5. Accept your Feelings
Emotional eating stems from feeling out of control with your emotions. This powerlessness often causes us to avoid our emotions entirely.
We need to feel and accept our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
This can be scary, I know. But once you recognise, accept, and embrace your core emotions, then you won’t need to desperately try to escape them through food.