The more I speak with people about dieting or weight loss, the more I realize that emotional eating plays a huge role. In my defense, I am not the instigator of this topic (and have a hard time talking about it with people outside of the consult room) but it does sometimes feel like an inevitable topic, especially with strangers.
There’s the tired cliché about women who are sad, reaching for chocolates to sooth but emotional eating goes much more deep than this. Eating to spite someone (or go against their “helpful” diet advice), eating due to happiness or celebration and eating due to loneliness are all examples.
Stress is perhaps the biggest culprit. Stress from work, home or social life has been a huge influence for many of my clients. It’s not always obvious to them but most evening snacking sessions can be due to stress from the day. Making time to reduce stress and have a few moments to breath during the day can help reduce relying on food’s ability to calm you down at night. Things like “I deserve this snack because I worked so hard all day” or “because I skipped lunch” or “taxied everyone around this evening” are not uncommon reasons we give ourselves to eat when we are not hungry. It is important to eat foods you love, to eat when you are hungry and to sometimes eat for pleasure rather than necessity. However, eating to reduce stress is a vicious circle, Especially if you are doing it on a regular basis. Most people who are not mindful eaters tend to increase feelings of guilt and anxiety, rather than feel comforted, when eating comfort foods.
Focusing on eating when you are hungry and asking yourself “why do I want to eat” before reaching for food when you are not, is just one way to start being more aware of emotional eating. Of course, the biggest issue with emotionally driven eating is possible weight gain and not being hungry at meals.
Another reason for reducing emotional eating was recently highlighted in a study involving children and parents. It found that offering food to children to soothe their “negative emotions (i.e. sadness, anxiety, etc) was the number one thing parents can do to encourage emotional eating by the child. Unfortunately, the impact of the parents doesn’t stop there. The study also suggested that the parent’s “emotional feeding practices” (i.e. emotional eating) can influence their children’s emotional eating. So it is suggested that there are two ways to reduce emotional eating in children- stop using food to ease their negative emotions (i.e. ice cream to ease sadness or to cheer up the child) and take a look at (and stop) the parent’s own emotional eating.
You can read more about this study (Associations between child emotional eating and general parenting style, feeding practices, and parent psychopathology) here.