How to Tell if You Are an Emotional Eater and How to Stop Being One

PC: Unsplash

Are you an emotional eater? Do you have a love/hate relationship with food? Do you eat when you aren’t hungry?

Maybe you’re discouraged because you’re just not managing to control your eating and your scale is telling you so.

Let’s take a look at what emotional eating is and how to overcome it.

A simple definition of emotional eating is eating when you don’t need to or are not hungry. You eat when you are angry, upset, lonely, or stressed.

Why do you do it?

Because it makes you feel better, else you wouldn’t do it, right?

The reason you feel better when you eat is because the body can’t process emotions and food at the same time.  When you eat, emotions get put on the back burner so that your body can deal with the food.  Because this is so “comforting” you learn to “medicate” yourself with food.  Soon it becomes a habit.

PC: google images

Do you identify with any of these? I used to identify with all of them.  Yikes!

  • You have a preoccupation with food and eating.
  • You eat when you are stressed/angry/frustrated/happy.
  • You long for something but don’t know what, so you eat.
  • You eat but don’t feel satisfied, so you snack on all sorts of things – and you’re still “hungry”.
  • Food is an obsession. You think about it all the time.
  • You feel like food is an enemy, yet you can’t stop stuffing your face.
  • Eating is the only thing you look forward to in life.

Now don’t despair.  There is hope for us who looooove eating. But it does take some effort and time, so don’t be in a hurry to fix this overnight.

Here are some ways to help you get your appetite under control:

  • Give God your heart. A change of heart is the key to change in your life.  What Christ works within your heart will be worked out in your life.  The plan of beginning outside and trying to work inward always fails, but God’s plan is to begin at the root and work from there.

Surrender your appetite, your desire for food, your emotional emptiness, your longing for that “something”, to God and allow Him to satisfy your heart needs.

 

  • Learn to deal with yucky feelings. We all have days where we feel bad about life.  Don’t allow yucky feelings to drive you to food.  Let them drive you to God.  Learn to surrender your stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, or frustration to Him.  Food may make you feel better temporarily, but God offers lasting peace. (John 14:27; 16:33)

 

  • Practice some restrictions. Try fasting once a week (you won’t die, I promise!), or juicing for 3 days, or switch to a 2 meal a day plan. This is not to punish yourself but to help you learn what real hunger is as opposed to appetite (just wanting food). It will make you more aware of your body and its needs and will sharpen your sensitivity to overeating.

 

  • Figure out your why. Fasting, eating only two meals a day, becoming vegetarian, or eating only raw foods for a while are all forms of restriction and do serve a purpose in gaining appetite control.  However, they are not the ultimate solution.  Try to figure out why you turn to food for comfort.

 

We often receive deep emotional wounds and in a desperate attempt to insulate ourselves from the pain of the past, we turn to food to help us avoid dealing with the intense pain of these emotional issues.

And it doesn’t work.

Finding out your “why” may be the secret to setting you free from your attachment to food.

Disordered eating can be caused by a number of things:[i]

Trauma: such as death of a loved one, divorce, rejection in a significant relationship, emotional or physical abandonment, a traumatic sexual experience or even a critical remark.

Abuse: physical, verbal, sexual or emotional. This can be short or long term and may be the result of ongoing, unresolved conflict. It may even come in the form of growing up in a dysfunctional home situation.

Being a sensitive child: a child who grows up in a family where emotional pain is not acknowledged or discussed may turn to food for comfort.

A controlling environment: people who have grown up with a parent or have married a person who is very controlling may try to survive by giving up their own identities while trying to please the other people.  If this becomes too painful or is no longer acceptable, a person may be unable to re-establish their own identity and may have difficulty making even simple decisions regarding food and eating.

Lack of validation of feelings: many people with eating disorders come from families where there appears to be no overt abuse or identifiable problem.  They experienced, rather, a very subtle undermining of their self-esteem.  They may have repeatedly received no validation of their thoughts or feelings or were given the message that it was wrong or selfish to feel as they did.  They might conclude from this experience that they must be bad or crazy.  They do not develop the ability to ask for what they need, and the result may be disordered eating.

 

Once you’ve looked at some of the deeper reasons for your addiction to food, there are a few things you can do to help yourself gain a healthy relationship with food:

  • Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food. Learn to recognise why you eat.  Is it true hunger or is it boredom, loneliness, or frustration?

PC: unsplash

  • Learn to eat consciously. Pause to look at your food and enjoy the colours, tastes, smells. Train yourself to eat slowly.  Become mindful of your food and thankful for it. Don’t eat on the run. Sit down and eat at a table if possible.  Don’t eat while reading or watching TV.  You will get to the end of the meal and feel unsatisfied because you weren’t taking in the whole experience with all your senses.  Save conflict resolution for another time; let meal time be peaceful and unhurried.
  • Learn to de-stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try praying and meditating on God’s word. People who pray have lower stress levels so learn to leave all your troubles at Jesus’s feet. Don’t forget exercise – it’s one of the best stress-busters! If you can, adjust your schedule and cut some things out of your life to minimise your stress.
  • Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. You may be mistaking thirst for hunger – drink a glass of water and see if the desire to eat goes away. If it is not physical hunger but rather emotional (just longing for something) give the craving a time to pass and do the next two points.
  • Get support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Call a friend when you feel tempted to eat when you know you are not hungry.
  • Replace eating with something good. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behaviour. Take a walk, play with your cat, listen to music, read, or call a friend. Find other pleasurable things to do besides eating.  Instead of rewarding yourself with food at the end of a long hard day, lift weights, read a good book, learn a new skill, or watch the sunset. A large part of eating is about pleasure, so find other (good) things that will bring you pleasure.

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  • Remove temptation. Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. And if you feel angry or down, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check. Never shop when you’re hungry or you’ll come home with all sorts of things you never intended to buy!
  • Get up when you fall.  If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that’ll lead to better health. Be patient with yourself. You didn’t get like this overnight and it will take time to win the battle.  Focus on the positive, claim God’s promises of victory, and don’t allow Satan to discourage you.

 

  • Eat at regular intervals with nothing in between. When I was in high school I developed the habit of not eating between meals.  It has stood me in good stead.  Create the habit of only ever eating at meal time.  This will cut out a large chunk of temptation because eating will not be an option.  Drink water instead. This will be a struggle at first, but in time you can create a new habit that will help you resist temptation.

God created food for us to enjoy but when the balance gets out of whack and food rules us, we lose the pleasure it was designed to give us.

Keep striving for a healthy relationship with food and give yourself grace when you fail.

What do you do to keep food in its right place in your life? What makes it harder for you to do this?

[i] Adapted from Get Thin, Stay Thin by Arthur & Judy Halliday

About The Author

Jennifer Lovemore

Jennifer has diplomas in relationship counselling and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), is a certified SYMBIS facilitator, and is certified in TPM (Transformation Prayer Minsitry). She lives in South Africa, has three grown children, and is married to her best friend – Richard.

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