How to Control Emotional Eating

When you're feeling sad, angry, or stressed, do you turn to certain foods to soothe your feelings? When you're eating, do you feel a sense of comfort that turns to discomfort after you're done? Do you eat when you're not really hungry, consume certain foods in secret, or binge when you're having a bad day?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are, you're an emotional eater. And while emotional eating may be common, according to experts, it can also undermine your weight-loss efforts. According to a 2007 study conducted at the Miriam Hospital's Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center, dieters who ate in response to emotions were likely to regain weight. In addition, studies suggest that emotional eaters have a hard time losing pounds and are at a particularly high risk for obesity.

The Connection Between Food and Mood

For emotional eaters, it can often be hard to pinpoint why they're eating. But research has shown that some foods help people achieve a feeling of psychological reassurance and are associated with positive memories. What's more, certain foods can have a profound impact on brain chemistry by boosting serotonin, endorphin, and insulin levels.

In some people, this can create a compulsion to eat-a phenomenon known as binge, or compulsive, eating. According to the National Mental Health Information Center, an estimated 25 million people have a binge-eating disorder. As Eating Disorders Anonymous explains, binge eating often leads people to feel ashamed and guilty. In response, many binge eaters diet, which prompts feelings of deprivation that may lead to more stress and continue the harmful cycle.
According to Eating Disorders Anonymous, some symptoms of an emotional-eating disorder are:

  • Obsessive thoughts of food.
  • Feeling out of control and unable to control eating.
  • Self-deprecating thoughts after binging.
  • Depressed thoughts and feelings.
  • Avoiding eating in public and hiding evidence of having eaten.
  • Weight fluctuation.
  • Preoccupation with body image.

Mind Over Matter

It's important to note that not all people with an emotional-eating disorder are obese, and not all people who are overweight are emotional eaters. In addition, occasionally eating because you're bored is not the same as disordered eating. According to experts, people who suffer from an emotional-eating disorder often have low confidence, have a fear of rejection, and isolate themselves or withdraw from social circles. They are also likely to keep their disorder a secret. Beyond the emotional implications, serious medical issues can result from binge eating, such as hypertension, depression, sleep disorders, and type 2 diabetes.

The good news: Research has shown that emotional eaters can become aware of their habits and develop strategies to control their behavior. In a British study conducted at the University of Birmingham, researchers found a direct correlation between a reduction in eating in response to emotion and weight-loss success.

Stopping the Cycle

If you think you may suffer from disordered eating, it's important to consult with a health-care professional. He or she can give you an accurate diagnosis and assist you in developing strategies to address your eating habits. In addition, these tips may help you to stop the cycle.

  • Eat breakfast. Not eating breakfast makes you hungrier later in the day and more prone to stress.
  • Meet your nutritional needs. Make sure you're eating a balanced diet and getting all of your vitamins and minerals.
  • Be active. Exercise relieves stress, which, in turn, helps relieve the temptation to graze or binge.
  • Learn how to manage stress. Instead of turning to food, find other, healthier ways to deal with your anxiety.
  • Never say diet. When you diet, you deprive yourself of foods that you want or even need. Instead, focus on making healthy lifestyle changes.
  • Get therapy. Therapy can help you get to the root cause of emotional eating and alleviate your triggers.