The link between feelings and food is almost unbreakable, given our cultural norms. Food is central to times of celebration and to times of mourning. Birthday parties must have birthday cake; a good caterer is crucial for a successful wedding. Similarly, funerals are followed by wakes or other receptions, during which attendees expect to be fed, and we send fruit baskets or baked goods to offer condolences. On all of these occasions, emotional arousal is high, and our thoughts shift immediately to what food is most appropriate to include.
Ask the next person you see: Do you ever eat just because you’re bored, even though you’re not really hungry? Chances are, he or she will say yes. So, many of us are guilty of emotional eating — consuming food in response to a certain emotional state (like sadness or boredom) rather than in response to physiological cues of hunger. When we are sad, lonely, worried and so on, we tend to crave more sweets, fats and carbohydrates than usual, so we end up eating junk food. Emotional eating leads to consumption of extra unhealthy calories, often mindlessly, which leads to weight gain. Gaining weight could increase stress and negative feelings and lead to more emotional eating, and so on.
Emotions can be scary, and many of us are raised to avoid painful feelings as much as possible. Messages like “brush it off” or “get over it” are all too common in our society. The truth is, the more we try to push our “bad” feelings away, the stronger they become. Learning to simply feel our feelings can have enormous positive effects, although it is also quite difficult to do so. Nobody wants to feel lonely or sad or anxious, so we eat to try to soothe these emotions, but later we might feel even worse.
The good news: awareness of your emotional eating patterns is the first step to changing these habits! Start checking in with yourself when you have a food craving. Ask yourself, “Am I truly hungry? What emotion am I feeling right now? Why? Is this a problem I can solve some other way?”
Oftentimes, reaching out for social support can replace the need for emotional eating. Other forms of self-care are beneficial, as well. Consider going for a walk, listening to music or drinking a glass of water. Practice mindfulness meditation to become more attuned to your body and present-moment experiences, which will help you recognize true hunger signals and understand your emotions.
All of this doesn’t mean you can never indulge; simply do so wisely, with recognition of the function that food is serving.
If you’re especially worried about your weight or believe you have lost control of your eating behavior, contact a health professional.
Jennie Brill Rodgers is a fifth-year student in Widener University’s Doctor of Psychology program.