Emotional eating is eating to suppress feelings of anger, loneliness, sadness, stress or an additional negative emotion. It may also be related to eating when celebrating, excited or happy. We often eat to treat emotions, whether it be for comfort, a distraction, or for personal or cultural reasons. Unfortunately, emotional eating can have harmful effects such as taking in empty calories, temporary suppression of negative emotions, sabotaging of weight management tools or an increase in ghrelin hormone (aka the “hunger hormone”) which can stimulate your appetite.
Luckily, emotional eating can be treated. It starts with exploring the cause or root of emotions and learning how to manage them. Recently, Ruby Vargas, a health coach from Community Health Innovations, conducted a free workshop on emotional eating for Aspire Health Plan members and people in the Monterey County, California community. This presentation was powerful, relevant and timely, as many people feel socially isolated due to shelter-in-place orders. She presented several helpful strategies and resources.
Strategy #1: The hunger scale
When you find yourself heading toward food, Vargas says to take a second to identify where your hunger is. Is it in your head? Did you just eat your lunch? Is it actually thirst? (We often mistake hunger for thirst, so make sure you stay hydrated.) Are you bored? Or is it true hunger? If it is true hunger, take a second to think or plan ahead for a healthy, balanced snack or meal.
Strategy #2: Practice HALT
HALT is an acronym used to help break the cycle of emotional eating. When you are about to eat a pint of ice cream, munch on a greasy snack or another easy fix, ask yourself Am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? or Tired? Make sure you are honest with yourself.
Strategy #3: Mindful meditation
Meditation helps us with focus, sleep and stress. It can also help improve our relationships with eating and managing weight. Activities including deep breathing exercises, yoga, prayer, going for a walk, riding a bike, swimming, or progressive muscle reaction.
Strategy #4: Identify triggers and find alternatives
Triggers can include foods, feelings or situations that occur at certain times of the day, month or season. Plan ahead. Acknowledge what time you tend to emotionally eat and prepare ahead of time and replace with a healthy alternative. For example, if you are triggered by boredom, try a new hobby that is not food related such as knitting or crafts. Or maybe call a friend, try a workout or go for a walk.
Strategy #5: Avoid tempting foods and keep a food log
Find alternatives and have healthy foods available. Remember the expression “out of sight, out of mind.” When you have true hunger, replace with healthy foods such veggies and hummus, fruit and peanut/almond butter, Greek yogurt with nuts and/or fruit, a handful of unsalted almonds/cashews/peanuts, whole wheat toast with peanut butter, string cheese with whole wheat crackers, or cottage cheese with fruit. Keeping a food log helps increase accountability and awareness.
When do you ask for help?
According to Vargas, there are several signs and symptoms of a bigger issue. These include feeling out of control, eating too rapidly, binging, induced vomiting, feeling the need to eat in secret, skipping meals to save room for binging or the use of laxatives to lose weight. If you begin to develop patterns for this behavior, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Know what resources are available
Once you realize that you need help, reach out to a licensed professional whether it be your primary care physician (PCP), a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, registered dietitian or wellness coach. Aspire Health Plan members have access to a Health Coaching program that enables members to engage at their convenience in a meaningful education program.
If you would like to talk with someone at Aspire about Health Coaching or finding additional resources to cope with emotional eating, please contact Member Services at (831) 574-4938, or toll free (855) 570-1600 (TTY: 711).