When I used to think of emotional eating I envisioned someone depressed eating an entire pizza in one sitting and topping it off with cake and ice cream after. I’d been that person before so I was well acquainted with the practice. But throughout the course of my weight loss journey I began to recognize another form of emotional eating, the kind associated with boredom and that recognizes food as a reward rather than what it really is: food for your body.
I became aware of my penchant for this type of emotional eating when I noticed the difference between my eating pattern throughout the week versus the weekend. While most people who exercise use Saturdays and Sundays for cheat meals, I realized I was the most diligent about my diet those days because I didn’t have a lot of down time. I would get up, hit the gym, eat a post-workout meal, take care of other tasks running around the city, have dinner, and that was that; both my calorie intake and output goals were met. During the work week, however, I found myself constantly wanting to snack. Having a desk job, there’s little opportunity to break up the monotony of constantly writing and editing and I realize now that snacking was what I’d use to interrupt my work day, which, even with healthy snacks, can go really left really quickly.
Similarly, I’ve noticed how when I don’t have plans, say on a Friday night after work, I’ll turn to food and drink as a way to treat myself after a long work week and have something to do or look forward to (besides sleeping in Saturday morning). Somewhere along the way it became impossible to Netflix and Chill without wining and dining myself as well– an old habit I thought I’d disciplined myself out of. But the thing is, when you’ve had unhealthy eating behaviors for a long time, it’s easy to slip back into those patterns because of the memories associated with past indulgences and the chemical releases that tell you what you’re doing is okay, at least in that moment. As Judith Wurtman, PhD, the former director of the Research Program in Women’s Health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center, told Real Simple, “Carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin” and the higher the levels of serotonin, the more content you feel, again, at least in that moment. It’s for that reason, Linda Spangle, RN, author of 100 Days of Weight Loss, says “You get into a pattern where every time you feel anything—sadness, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, even happiness—you turn to food.” And then you turn to the scale and wonder, whoa, what happened here.
The biggest way to combat emotional eating is to think about it from the other way it’s commonly referred to which is mindless eating. Being fit and healthy takes effort so immediately you should know anything mindless is a potential distractor from your goal. Further, you need to figure out what your triggers are. If it’s boredom, you need to replace eating with an activity away from temptation. If it’s stress or anxiety, figure out the source of those emotions and devote serious time to developing strategies to de-stress that don’t involve food or drink. If sadness or depression is what leads you to mindlessly eat, don’t be ashamed to seek the guidance of a therapist who can help you get to the source of your feelings. Emotional eating is a symptom of something that’s wrong mentally not just a cause of weight gain physically. Fix that and you’ve won half the battle on the road the being fit.