End Emotional Eating and Stress Eating Today

span style="font-size: 11pt; color: black;">It is common to overeat from time to time. However, frequent bouts of overeating in response to emotions can be harmful to your physical and emotional wellbeing. Until recently, the medical community knew very little about the role of stress and anxiety and its effects on eating behavior.

An interesting connection has been established between emotional eating and dieting. New research highlights the effects of chronic dieting on the relationship among stress, anxiety, hunger, and eating. Researchers have discovered that ‘chronic dieters’ who are hungry will overeat when stressed; however, if they are not hungry, anxiety will have no effect on eating. The problem here of course, is the fact that chronic dieters spend much of their time in a state of hunger in an exhausting effort to lose weight. Non ‘chronic dieters’ on the other hand, don’t seem to turn to food when stressed or anxious. Again, the link to hunger is that non dieters tend to eat when they are hungry, so hunger may largely be removed from the equation. Although it may not be as simple as grouping people into categories of dieters and non-dieters, these findings demonstrate the long lasting effects of chronic fad or restrictive dieting.

So why do some turn to food when experiencing certain emotions or anxiety? Food can bring comfort and pleasure at least in the short-term. As a result, food can temporarily heal emotional problems. Eating might then become a habit that prevents us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress.

Anxiety or depression, boredom, anger, loneliness, frustration, and stress are just some of the emotions or situations that can lead to overeating. Problems with interpersonal relationships and poor self-esteem can result in overeating and unwanted weight gain.

Before we look at the behavioral strategies of reducing the frequency of emotional eating, we should first deal with the physical component. If chronic dieting can exacerbate emotional eating then reducing hunger should dramatically improve our ability to cope with emotions in a manner other than eating. Thus dieters must introduce regular eating patterns such as eating three meals and two to three snacks per day. Although we can’t always predict when we’ll experience certain emotions, we can take measures to not be ravenously hungry when the emotions occur.

The first step in the behavioral component to stop emotional eating involves identifying triggers, or the series of events that lead to emotional eating. Once we recognize our triggers, the second step is to substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation.

Although you can guess which emotions and situations might lead to your overeating, it is far more effective to keep a food journal that includes the time, place and feelings that you experience when you eat. Professional lifestyle based programs can help you analyze your records and observe your behaviour rather than speculate about your habits.

Changing learned behaviors or ‘habits’ is never easy. It takes practice and a plan that lists alternatives to eating. It may be taking deep breaths, meditating, taking a bath, calling or writing a friend, or going for a walk. The best strategies involve activities that are incompatible to both the emotions you are feeling and eating.

Research shows that emotions, particularly stress and anxiety, influence our urges to eat comforting foods. You can improve your odds of choosing alternatives to eating if you can prevent ravenous hunger by eating regularly, identifying your eating triggers and learning alternative coping behaviors. Keep in mind that behaviour change is a process and the goal is to improve, not to be perfect. If you make a mistake, it’s an opportunity to improve and your confidence and health will grow with every success.

Drew is the director of the Healthy Weights Clinic and an expert in emotional eating and healthy weight loss.

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