Emotional Eating: Are You A Victim?

Food and Emotion
Food supplies the body with energy. But for many, it's also a quick "fix" for emotional stress. Some people readily acknowledge eating in response to stress, while others react unconsciously. Signs of emotional eating include: eating when not hungry, craving food or snacks when tense or distressed, or using food as a reward. All the extra calories can lead to weight gain, feelings of guilt, and more food cravings.

Linda Spangle, R.N., a diet counselor, has written a book on emotional eating. She says the desire to eat should be triggered by a need for fuel for the body – anything else is excess. Eating binges triggered by emotions can be grouped into one of two categories: head hunger and heart hunger. Head hunger occurs in response to emotions, such as anger, stress, frustration, irritation, or burnout. In these cases, the desire for food is triggered by the need to "chew" on something. Usually the food cravings are very specific, such as potato chips, candy bar, popcorn, or crackers. Heart hunger is often associated with feelings of emotional unfulfillment, such as sadness, boredom, loneliness, discouragement, or a need for love or attention. Cravings associated with heart hunger are less specific and tend to gravitate toward the soft and smooth "comfort foods," such as ice cream, pasta, chocolate, milkshakes, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, casseroles, and cake.

Breaking the Link Between Emotion and Eating
While calorie restriction is important to lose or maintain weight, severe dieting can have the opposite effect. Many dieters end up so hungry they binge and eat carelessly. That leads to weight gain and further guilt – fueling more emotional eating. Skipping meals can also cause weight gain because the body slows down to compensate for the caloric restriction. To keep the body energized, eat at least three modest meals a day – including a good breakfast. A small healthy snack between meals can keep the body charged between fuel stops. Some people prefer to eat five or six "mini-meals" throughout the day instead of the traditional three main meals.

Spangle has developed a five-step action plan to help emotional eaters break the cycle. First, learn to make a distinction between hunger for fuel and a desire to eat. If you have a well balanced diet, you shouldn't be hungry. Try to figure out what's triggering the desire to eat. Is it "head hunger" or "heart hunger?" In step 2, examine your emotions (angry, lonely, depressed?) Step 3 - determine your needs. Once you've identified your specific emotions, try to determine what's missing or needed (i.e., a need to be with others or take a break). Then, figure out how those needs can be fulfilled. In step 4, look for any roadblocks or excuses that will prevent you from fulfilling those needs. Step 5, develop a plan of action that can help you cope and avoid the need to reach for food. You may be able to fend off head hunger by focusing on alternative ways to work out your emotions (such as taking a quick walk, using deep breathing exercises, or reading a book or magazine). Heart hunger can often be overcome by taking a warm bath, giving someone a hug, petting an animal, lighting candles, or getting a massage.

If the urge to eat is too strong, try the "two bite" rule to avoid completely sabotaging the diet. The lure of food is often its taste and texture. Take one bite of the desired food. Chew slowly and savor the texture and flavor, allowing to body to appreciate the sensory qualities of the morsel. Do the same with the second bite. Often, after just two bites, the body is satisfied and you can often stop eating.

For more Information

Spangle’s book, Life is Hard, Food is Easy, is published by Lifeline Press and can be ordered through most bookstores.

For tips on overcoming emotional eating: Eating Disorders Anonymous, 18233 N. 16th Way, Phoenix, AZ 85022, http://www.eatingdisordersanonymous.org

For general information on healthy eating: The American Dietetic Association, http://www.eatright.org