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How to stop eating your emotions

While the tendency to reach out for food when you are stressed, angry, lonely, tired or bored can feel overwhelming, there are ways to regain control over your cravings

When you're feeling stressed, angry, lonely, tired or bored, the desire to eat can feel overwhelming
When you're feeling stressed, angry, lonely, tired or bored, the desire to eat can feel overwhelming (Pexels)

Ding dong. Your Swiggy order is here. What did you get this time?

I know you had a bad day. Did you order the ice cream place from that place you loved, or was it the biryani?

If you struggle with emotional eating, you're in good company. According to the American Psychological Association, 50% of millennials report unhealthy eating related to stress, and this study was conducted in pre-Covid times!

When you're feeling stressed, angry, lonely, tired, bored (and the list of triggers are endless), the desire to eat can feel overwhelming; however, it doesn't mean you're powerless against it. There are proven ways you can move past the bowl of ice cream and regain control over your cravings.

However, before we dive into overcoming your cravings, we first need to understand what emotional eating is and how it differs from being physically hungry.

Also read: How to make the perfect bowl of overnight oats

Here's the million-dollar question: do you know when you're hungry?

Physical hunger is when your body tells you that you need to refuel, much like the fuel gauge on a car. Hunger tells us that we are getting low on energy, focusing our attention on topping up our supply. It can start as a light rumble in our stomach, which you can avoid if you're busy, and gradually build until you're ravenous. At the most extreme, you may feel dizzy, light-headed, nauseous, and jittery. At any stage during your increasing hunger, you will be satisfied with any food available, and you tend to eat until you're comfortable.

According to research conducted on emotional eating, emotional hungeris different--you know what I mean, those uncontrolled binges when you are upset. There is no warning light to give you an indication that you're about to have an onset of cravings. It comes on suddenly and feels urgent. Emotional hunger isn't about requiring more nutrients for survival. Instead, its purpose is to use food to address some form of emotional discomfort. It can be triggered by your events in your day, environment, visual trigger cues, habits you've established over time, and more. 

During a bout of emotional hunger, you also tend to crave hyper-palatable foods that are high-fat, sugar, or sodium foods, like pizza or ice cream. You may also find yourself overeating and feel a little guilty or ashamed once you're finished.

Reading this, you may instantly conclude that emotional hunger is terrible and must be rooted out immediately. However, emotional eating can be your brains' way of coping with unpleasant feelings. As published in the Frontiers in Psychology, food can be both practical and pleasurable, and evidence of that is that dopamine, the mood-boosting hormone, is released when we eat. If you're feeling emotionally triggered, that instant dopamine hit will melt your blues away.

Also read: Why skimping on your sleep is a bad idea

However, food is a costly antidepressant, as the food choices and amount consumed during eating may not serve your health or waistline. Therefore, it's in our best interest to find a balance that honours hunger, allows for some planned indulgences and makes us more conscious about why we are eating.

The  Nutrition Research Review Journal tells us the first step to gaining control over your cravings are to regain awareness of your food choices and practice something called "mindful," or intuitive eating.

Mindful eating can be a transformative process. It enables you to identify your hunger and satiety cues and learn how to make food choices accordingly. Practising mindful eating doesn't mean that you can no longer enjoy the occasional indulgence. Instead, it gives you the awareness of where those food choices fit into the larger picture of your body and health.

The first step to gain more awareness and control of your emotional eating is to move away from the diet culture and the idea of restricting calories. This may seem counterintuitive; however, by removing feelings of guilt and shame associated with overeating and practising self-compassion instead, you are more likely to tune into your internal cues and honour them. When doing so, you may notice that your cravings feel less urgent, not more.

Secondly, you must honour your hunger. Honouring our hunger means we must tune into our hunger cues and eat when the time is right. The best way to hone your hunger detecting skills is to think of your hunger as a scale. Zero on the scale is not hungry at all, ten being ravenous. So a good time to eat is when you're at approximately 7/10 so that you can be present and aware of your food choices.

Understanding that hunger is not an emergency, and you can control when you eat, you can better identify physical from emotional hunger. Next, you can discover a new level of satisfaction by turning on your senses during the eating process. This is the delicious part of the mindful eating process, where you can truly enjoy your food. You start this process by eating slowly. Is your food colourful and visually appealing? Does it smell comforting and inviting? Is it crunchy or soft? Is it sweet or tart? By slowing down the eating process, you not only spend more time enjoying your food, but you also can tune into how your stomach feels, and you can better decide when it's time to stop eating.

And finally, feel your fullness. As you eat slowly, your brain has a chance to catch up with your stomach and send signals to stop eating when you're feeling satisfied. This process can take around 20 minutes, which may feel like a long time, to start. Practice increasing your time each time you eat by only a minute or two until this feels natural.

Jen Thomas is a woman's weight loss coach based out of Chennai, India.


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