How to beat emotional eating
If you’re trying to shift a few pounds, you need to tackle your emotions as well as downloading that new running app and filling your cupboards with healthy food. The reason? ‘At least 70 per cent of people who struggle with their weight are emotional eaters,’ says psychologist Dr Jane McCartney, author of Stop Overeating (Vermilion, £10.99). She believes that if you don’t address the feelings behind the food cravings, your diet’s likely to fail.
Work out whether you’re affected
It’s not always easy to tell whether you’re an emotional eater but here are some clues: you often feel guilty after eating, you eat even when you’re not physically hungry, you frequently pick sugary or fatty foods over healthier options, and/or you started gaining weight during a difficult time in your life. If any of these apply, it’s very likely your feelings may lie behind those extra kilos.
Spot your triggers
‘Knowing how to uncover and identify what’s really causing your emotional eating will be the best start to stopping it,’ says McCartney. She explains that, typically, a trigger will set off an emotional chain of events that leads to overeating. The trigger could be something apparently minor in the here and now, like having a row with your partner or being late for work. Or it may be the latest flare-up of some persistent issues, such as problems with your dysfunctional family or financial troubles.
McCartney suggests setting aside some quiet time, taking a pen and some paper and thinking about a recent occasion when you’ve eaten because of how you felt and not because of genuine hunger. Then think about one event that led you to it. Repeat this four more times, so you end up with five incidents that happened before you ate. You may start to notice a pattern – for example, perhaps you tend to eat when you worry your partner doesn’t love you anymore, or when you feel unappreciated at work. Understanding what’s really going on in your mind when you reach for the biscuit tin can, in itself, help to pull you up.
Take time out
‘When you get the urge to eat for a reason other than hunger, don’t – instead, give yourself 10 minutes,’ says Jane. ‘The emotion making you want to eat will lose its intensity after this time.’ During the 10-minute period, try to think about what’s triggered your desire to eat. Learning not to act on it will help you to realise you can just ‘be’ with difficult feelings rather than needing to stuff them down with food.
Everyone needs a lift when times are tough, so find some non-food options you can pick as treats. Make a list of simple pleasures you can choose from when you’ve had a bad day. These shouldn’t be worthy – they need to feel like indulgences – but avoid basing them around shopping: buying a pricey lipstick every time you need an emotional cuddle could soon leave you with a different set of problems.
You could give yourself a manicure, watch an episode of your favourite box set, Skype the friend who always makes you laugh, soak in a bath with some beautiful essential oils or listen to music that cheers you up.
Get more help
If you’re still struggling with overeating after trying these tips, or you find that attempting to change your behaviour brings up some painful feelings, it may be time for some professional help. Speak to your doctor about your concerns. Or visit bacp.co.uk for a therapist in your area.
Got any strategies of your own to beat emotional eating? Tweet and tell us @healthymag