If you scarf down Oreos after a hard day at work or polish off a pint of ice cream any time you fight with your significant other, the problem isn’t with your willpower — it’s with your coping skills. Food can become that go-to distraction you use to avoid tackling your biggest stressors head-on, experts say. In this way, overindulging can be a way to dodge the pressing problems in your life.
Emotional eating isn’t a new concept, but we don’t always look beyond its soothing effects. Sometimes, it turns into a habitual, maladaptive coping strategy to deal with issues like loneliness, boredom or depression. In this way, emotional eating can be similar to addictions, explains Barbara Spanjers, MS, a therapist and wellness coach based in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The solution, however, isn’t to separate food from feelings completely. “All eating has an emotional component, and we don’t want to remove that. It’s nurturing. It’s attached to memories. It encourages social connection,” Spanjers says. “The problem arises when you’re using eating or food for coping — if you’re in that pan of brownies instead of talking to your boss about what went down at work today.”
Once the brownies are gone, however, your problems will still be around. Over time, this habit of indulging in the moment can block you from achieving long-term goals, such as weight loss.
According to Spanjers, people who lack assertiveness can often get swept up in this particular brand of emotional eating to cope with the anxiety they feel. “We often don’t want to want to take a moment and figure out what is wrong with us, but we should,” she says. “Learn to say no to unimportant things. Learn to deal with loneliness by seeking out people, not food.”
If you’re more tempted to dive into a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels instead of calling your partner to sort out your latest argument, ask yourself these five questions. Your answers will help you better understand your emotional eating habits — and learn how to break them.
1. Is This Physical Hunger or Emotional Hunger?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between emotionally-driven and physically-driven forms of hunger, says Spanjers, but there is a telltale clue: “Physical hunger tends to come on gradually, whereas emotional hunger tends to hit you fast,” she says.
If you suddenly notice an urge to eat (especially if you’ve just finished a meal), pause and ask yourself if you’re responding to a stress trigger like an impending deadline or disagreement with your best friend. Deal with that to feel better, says Spanjers.
2. What’s Really Causing That Rumbling in My Gut?
We often clue into our hunger because we feel it in our gut. But stress and nervousness can also make the stomach flutter. Spanjers explains that disordered eating habits and food anxieties have caused many people to feel cut off from the body’s messaging system, spurring a slew of misinterpreted signals.
“If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing physical hunger pangs, when did you start feeling it?” Spanjers asks. “Check to see if you have a reason to be anxious.” If you do, relieve the anxiety by tackling the situation or taking a few deep breaths — not by grabbing a snack.
3. What Feeling Am I Trying to Get From Food?
Even if you’ve dealt with the problem that caused your stress, you might still feel the need to soothe yourself. According to Susan Albers, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of "Eat Q: Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence," we are conditioned to reach for food to feel good. “It’s in so many ads. Think of chocolate, associated with words like ‘bliss,’” Albers explains.
“If you’re consistently comfort-eating, try making swaps,” Albers says. “Come up with activities that will match the feeling the food would create for you.” Say you feel calm when you eat chocolate cake and when you pet your dog: Only one is a healthy coping mechanism.
4. What Are Some Practical Ways Can I De-Stress?
A lot of stress-management advice is unrealistic for the times you need relief the most. “Take a vacation, take a bubble bath. If the kids are screaming, grabbing the M&Ms is easy. Taking a bubble bath is hard,” Spanjers says.
She and Albers both suggest making a list of ways you can deal with your biggest stressors in the moment. “Come up with five things you find relaxing, five places you find calming, and five sayings that improve your mood,” Albers advises. “This could be yoga or putting on pajamas, going to a park or your quiet bedroom, or a mantra or prayer.” Write them down on a piece of paper so you’ll commit them to memory.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal or savoring a delicious dessert. “Food is fabulous,” Spanjers insists. “If you want a glass of wine to unwind with your girlfriends on a Friday, that’s great. But if you need it to get out of your house, that’s not good. It’s when it comes at the expense of dealing with real problems that food becomes a problem.”