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Understanding diabetes

How to Stop Emotional Eating

Do you tend to eat to feel better? If yes, then you are a binge eater or an emotional eater - but don't worry, you can learn to manage it, heres how.

Richard Johnson
Reading time: 
6
minutes
Published: 
May 30, 2022

There are many reasons people turn to emotional eating as a coping mechanism. For example, if you're feeling unhappy and don't know how to handle your emotions, you may start overeating to distract yourself from your feelings. However it is complex and goes well beyond being just a distraction, but we'll come back to this.

Emotional Eating is OK, in the sense that everyone does it to a point, but it is not a solution for life's difficulties since it only works temporarily. Worse, it causes longer-term distress if it brings about weight gain.

In this opening section, we'll explore the causes and effects of emotional eating, as well as how to break the cycle. Awareness is half the battle, and since you are reading this, you are already on the path to creating new, better coping mechanisms. But first ………

What's the Difference Between Binge Eating and Emotional Eating?

The term emotion is used in relation to both Binge Eating and Emotional Eating; the primary difference between the two is the amount of food consumed. An emotional eater could consume more food when eating emotionally, but it's not the same as a binge eating disorder. The term binge highlights an increased severity, amount, and, consequently, discomfort. Binge eating disorder (BED) is an recognised disorder and has an official diagnosis.

Are you an emotional eater?

  • Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
  • Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
  • Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

Is Binge Eating Nature or Nurture?

The short answer is it’s both. The long answer is that it’s complex; it includes environmental,  genetic, and neurological aspects. Impairments in:

  • Reward Processing
  • Inhibitory control
  • Emotion Regulation

These neurological factors can result in problematic binge eating behaviours, those typically associated with BED (Binge Eating Disorder). This is why psychotherapy is still the primary treatment.

Environmental Factors

Emotional eating tends to have roots in emotional disorders such as persistent depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder among others. It is thought to arise from numerous factors rather than a single cause.  

Comfort-type foods and drinks that tend to be fatty, sugary, or salty are considered environmental factors, because they are always readily available.  We consume them because they are pleasurable to eat, they alter how we feel, or in other words they are mood enhancers.  They trigger the release of hormones such as serotonin (chocolate) or dopamine into the blood thereby elevating mood and activating the brain’s reward system while reducing tension and anxiety.

Dieting as a Cause of Emotional Eating.

Dieting seems to predispose those with emotional disorders to emotional eating, specifically when diets fail, this is why dieting must be managed carefully. The body-beautiful image which is pervasive throughout society, and reinforced by advertising and global media, provides unrealistic goals for all, but particularly for women, one which is nevertheless pursued through dieting and beauty treatments but always out of reach. 

This is perhaps one key reason why emotional eating disorders seem to be more common in women than men.

Pervasive Stress, Emotional Eating, and Type 2 Diabetes

The need to conform to societal expectations, such as how we should look, act and behave, is a pervasive stressor. Eating fatty or sugary foods (comfort foods) seems to dampen stress-related responses and emotions. The benefits of emotional eating seem to be rooted in countering the negative physiological effects of stress caused by the release of high levels of insulin, cortisol, and ghrelin levels in the blood. Consequently, we can take in more calories during emotional eating, which can cause weight gain, which in turn predisposes emotional eaters to type 2 diabetes. In around 90% of all cases of type 2 diabetes, individuals are overweight.

How to stop Emotional Eating With Stress Management

There are many different strategies for dealing with stress and stressful situations. One of the most effective is starting a food diary, similar to how someone with type 2 diabetes would.  Create a food plan, and then only shop for the food in the plan, - stick to the plan. DiabTrend can help with this, providing a healthy range of food plans and the tracking necessary to help you lose weight.  Below are some additional suggestions; they are all enjoyable, so why not try them?

  1. Choose a tasty diet that's not too strict. Here we suggest the Mediterranean diet; while banning nothing, it minimises the bad and maximises the good nutritionally speaking, while retaining the flavours of tasty meat.  Don’t forget, track with DiabTrend!
  2. Take regular breaks away from whatever causes you stress. Weekends away to new environments is usually helpful.
  3. Listen to calming music at stressful moments
  4. Read a good book
  5. Meet people who make you feel good
  6. Go for walks and pat your dog
  7. Meditate - Meditation has been shown to be very effective at reducing blood pressure while also being a tool for impulse control.

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