Cake anyone? Actually crisps…..that’s my emotional eating go to… lots of crisps. You?
Emotional eating involves consuming food when you are not hungry to satisfy an emotional trigger. It is often used as a comfort and coping mechanism for negative emotions and low mood. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to try and eat that anger, grief, worry, or sadness with a tub of Pringles than actually face it right?
How Common is Emotional Eating?
Since food is so integral to our lives, it makes sense that we’d turn to it from time to time simply for comfort or even pleasure. Think about it – as a race, food is so intricately entwined with so much of our existence – celebrations and gatherings, ‘treats’, traditions and memories….they all involve food. It is therefore perfectly normal that it would trigger emotional reactions, both positive and negative. In fact, some experts suggest that 75% of our eating is motivated by emotions over hunger.
Whilst some level of emotional eating is therefore ‘normal’ it can become problematic if it is your primary way of reacting to and dealing with emotions and upset.
The Consequences of Emotional Eating
Let’s face it – if I am trying to stuff down some difficult emotions I’m probably not hitting the veg drawer in the fridge. Emotional eaters often crave high-calorie, carbohydrate, and fatty foods, and tend to eat beyond the point of fullness or satiety. This can lead to weight gain and other health problems, as well as contributing to feelings of guilt, shame, and self-criticism.
Emotional Eating in Midlife
Emotional eating tends to begin at a younger age but can increase during midlife, when hormone fluctuations can impact mood, stress levels and emotional health. Cue heading to the biscuit tin if that is where you have repeatedly found solace in the past. Midlife emotional eating can lead to increased weight gain, at a time when it is more difficult for many women to manage weight anyway. And there you have it – a cycle of guilt, shame, comfort eating and repeat.
Aging can also be a challenge to body image when many midlife women experience a total disconnect between the age they feel, their biological age and what they see in the mirror. The wrinkles, tummy rolls, and wobbly bits staring back are often at odds with how we feel we should look to match the unrealistic youth-obsessed images prevalent in the media.
Recognising Emotional Eating
Some signs that may indicate that you are engaging in emotional eating include:
- Eating when you’re not physically hungry
- Eating to distract yourself from negative emotions such as stress, boredom, sadness, or anxiety
- Eating in response to emotional triggers such as specific situations, people, or events
- Feeling guilty or ashamed after eating, especially if you have consumed large amounts of food
- Eating beyond the point of fullness or feeling uncomfortably full
- Craving specific foods that are associated with comfort or emotional satisfaction
- Eating alone or in secret to hide your eating habits from others
Physical Emotional Eating Triggers
It is important to note that overeating may be triggered by physiological as well as psychological factors. Therefore, whilst many of us do have emotional eating triggers, it is important to address any underlying physiological factors that might be contributing to a negative relationship with food and midlife emotional eating.
- Stress. The stress hormone cortisol can increase appetite and cause overeating. High cortisol levels can also increase cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods. Managing stress is therefore key to helping support a healthier relationship with food.
- Fatigue and lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite and can lead to overeating. It can also increase cortisol, which can further exacerbate emotional eating and make overeating more likely. Insufficient sleep also affects parts of the brain that determine how we think about food. In studies of people with limited sleep, brain activity is enhanced in areas that are involved in viewing food as a reward, making us more vulnerable to overeating. Even worse, these changes in the brain seem to be strongest with high-calorie and low-nutrient foods associated with obesity.
- Sugar. It is no accident that when we are feeling emotional and stressed we reach for sugar, as it has been found to temporarily inhibit the secretion of cortisol. It therefore helps minimise feelings of anxiety and tension….in the short term. However, high sugar intake can lead to long-term peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels, which themselves can induce cortisol secretion, cravings, mood changes and fatigue – all triggers for emotional and overeating.
- Being overly hungry. If you regularly ignore hunger cues and allow yourself to become very hungry before eating it is more likely that you will make less healthy nutrition choices and overeat. You are also likely to eat too quickly, not giving your stomach time to tell your brain you are full. You are also more likely to reach for simple carbohydrates first because your blood sugar has dipped so low that your body is craving the quickest source of energy – sugar. If you do become very hungry try to make sure you include protein with your next meal or snack and eat slowly, despite your hunger.
- Lack of essential nutrients in the diet. One theory suggests that the body is on a constant hunt for the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally, particularly protein. And that if it does not get the protein it requires, the body will effectively attempt to keep you eating until you fulfill it’s quota. So if that happens early in the day then you are less likely to go looking for snacks and food when you are not hungry. Ensuring a high protein, high micronutrient breakfast may therefore help create a feeling of fullness and nourishment that stops you snacking and reaching for food between meals.
Emotional Eating Strategies
If you notice yourself frequently turning to food to help you cope with difficult emotions you might need to use some emotional eating strategies to help you understand your triggers and eating habits. It can be really helpful to focus on the following areas:
- Recognise when it is happening. This means being aware of your emotional eating triggers, such as stress, boredom, or anxiety. Once the triggers are identified, it is important to find alternative ways to cope with emotions that do not involve food. This can include activities such as exercise, meditation, or spending time with loved ones.
- Learn to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Physical hunger is when the body needs nourishment, while emotional hunger is when food is used to satisfy emotional needs. One way to differentiate between the two is to ask yourself if you would be satisfied with a healthy meal or if you are craving a specific food or comfort food. If it is the latter, it is likely emotional hunger.
- Identify the root cause of your emotions. It is important to acknowledge and recognise that eating will only offer a temporary ‘timeout’ from the emotions you are feeling and may cause you to ignore or cover up the root cause. Take a moment to think about what triggered your emotional eating, and ask yourself what your needs are right now and what might help you work through and resolve this emotion more effectively in the long term.
- Practice mindfulness and mindful eating. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and fully experiencing your emotions without judgment. This can help you better understand your feelings and reduce the urge to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Mindful eating involves paying attention to the experience of eating, including the taste, texture, and smell of food. It is important to eat slowly and without distractions, such as watching TV or using electronic devices. By focusing on the experience of eating, you can become more attuned to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, which can help prevent overeating.
- Practice stress management techniques. Stress is a major trigger for emotional eating, so finding ways to reduce stress can help prevent the behaviour. One technique that has been shown to be effective is progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body to promote relaxation and reduce tension. Other techniques that can be helpful include deep breathing, visualisation, exercise, journaling, taking a bath (I always manage to squeeze this into my blogs!) and aromatherapy.
- Sleep well. It is important to prioritise getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night to reduce the risk of emotional eating.
- Eat for health. Consuming a nutrient dense diet (with a particular focus on protein), eating at regular intervals and ensuring you are hydrated can help reduce physical food cravings and ensure you’re not left so hungry that you grab empty calories and over eat….potentially leading to the guilt/shame cycle and further emotional eating. For more information on protein at midlife read my blog ‘How Important is Protein for Midlife Women’.
- Find a supportive tribe. Seeking out social support from friends and family, joining a support group, or working with an expert in the field can provide encouragement and accountability, as well as help you feel less alone in your struggles.
- Practice self-compassion and forgiveness. This means recognising that everyone emotionally eats from time to time. This does not make you weak, shameful or a gluten….it makes you human. It is okay to indulge in your favourite foods. However it’s important to recognise when this has become a regular occurrence and/or your primary source of comfort when times are tough. It also means not being too hard on yourself when you slip up.
Overall, overcoming midlife emotional eating is a process that requires patience, self-awareness, and a commitment to self-care. But by implementing these strategies and seeking support when needed, you CAN establish a healthier relationship with food and improve your emotional well-being.
If you’d like more information then why not sign up to my free ’Effective Ways to Banish Emotional Eating’ eBook for more tips and tricks
Let me know in the comments what strategies have worked for you and follow me at at motherflushingmidlife at the social links below for more regular content on emotional eating and all things midlife!
Please note: This blog is not intended to act as a substitute for professional advice. If you are struggling to manage your emotional eating on your own, it is important to seek help from a therapist or counselor who specialises in this area. They can provide you with additional tools and strategies to manage your emotions and improve your relationship with food.