Combating the “Addiction” of Emotional Eating
By Jen Tewell, ProActive Kids Lifestyle Coach
Many people joke about being a “choco-holic” or having a “sweet tooth” but recently published research suggests that these common terms may not be far from the truth. Studies have found that high sugar, salt, and fat foods may have an effect on the brain that is similar to other drugs of abuse. Not only that, but many of the behaviors and symptoms reported by individuals struggling with drugs and alcohol have also been reported by individuals struggling with food. A loss of control, preoccupation with finding and obtaining the substance, continued use (eating) despite negative consequences, increased bodily tolerance to the food to the point of needing to eat more, and the using (eating) interfering with other areas of your life are just a few examples.
While no actual diagnosis of “food addiction” or “emotional eater” currently exists, some of the standard treatments for substance addiction may also be helpful in managing an unhealthy relationship with food.
1.) Speak with your doctor.
First and foremost, it’s necessary to rule out the possibility that a medical reason is to blame for the behavior (i.e. when your child reports they never feel full or when you are eating excessive amounts of food and not gaining weight). A well-conducted physical can make sure you’re physically healthy from cranium to calf muscle.
2.) Identify “triggers”.
In the addictions world, we often talk about “triggers” to the addictive behavior- a person, place, or situation that prompts the behavior. For an individual struggling with emotional eating, a trigger might be having a fight with a friend or family member, preparing for a test or project at school or work, or attending a celebratory event such as a wedding or birthday party. A trigger might even be something as simple as driving by your favorite fast-food restaurant or seeing a commercial for junk food on T.V. Identifying triggers to the behavior is an easy way to prevent the behavior in the first place. Reduce interactions with things identified as triggers as much as possible. Eat before you go to a social gathering, change the channel when a food ad comes on, and keep healthy snacks in the car so that going through the drive-thru isn’t an option. Of course it’s simply impossible to avoid all stress; it’s part of the experience of life and makes us who we are. Instead of avoiding triggers altogether, it’s important to practice other behaviors when feeling emotional distress; ones that don’t involve heading for the fridge.
3.) Replace the behavior.
If you’re someone who eats when they’re stressed, angry, or even happy, the eating has become a coping skill, or a way of managing the feeling. The problem is, as you’ve probably already found, there are many negative consequences to coping this way including health concerns, poor self-image, and further negative emotions. Most importantly it’s not an effective way of working through the emotion; the eating only delays the emotional discomfort temporarily. Now that we’re attempting to change eating behavior by eliminating it, we need to make sure we replace it with something more effective. Going for a walk, taking a “time out” from the thing (or person!) that’s causing you discomfort, or talking the problem out to a good friend or loved one are all great strategies for managing emotions. Try and make choices that not only manage the uncomfortable feeling, but that also make you feel the positive- opposite feeling. Exercise, for example, provides a break from stress but also increases happy mood by increases endorphins, or those “feel good” hormones in the body. There are a wide variety of healthy coping skills so get creative make sure you choose ones that suit your and your child’s individual needs. Coping skills should also be easy to use in a variety of situations. Deep breathing, for example, can be practiced virtually anywhere.
4.) Rally your support system.
Taking on any new challenge is hard enough, especially if you feel you have to do it alone or have naysayers standing in your way. Identify positive people in your life who can build you up when you’re feeling tempted to resort to food to manage your emotions. Let those negative relationships fall by the wayside. The only people worth being in your family’s social circle are those who have your best interests at heart.
5.) Get Empowered.
If you, your child, or someone you know is struggling with eating behaviors, you may be familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of being out of control; like nothing you do can change the way you feel. While it’s true we can’t necessarily control a feeling, we can control how we respond to the feeling. Make the choice to use those healthy coping skills instead of turning to food. Recognize strengths and use them to your advantage. Remind yourself or your child of factors that contributed to their success in other areas of their life (their hard work on studying for a test that resulted in a good grade, for example) and take comfort in knowing that you have developed a plan to manage triggering emotions when they occur. You and your child have surely made accomplishments in the past- there is absolutely no reason you can’t make strides in a tough relationship with food as well.
If after applying these tips you’re not seeing an improvement in your or your child’s habits, or you feel you might be in need of some additional support, it may be time to talk to a qualified mental health professional. A counselor or therapist can assist you and your child in getting to the root of the eating behaviors, whether that be due to stress, the loss of a loved one, or a clinical depression.
While the jury is still out as to whether an addiction to food exists or not, the real question is how much does the behavior interfere with your life. Do you hide sweets or junk food in your room/desk /purse or backpack? Are you taking time away from socializing to sneak a bite of a food you just can’t resist? Are you continuing to eat excessively salty or sweet foods despite weight gain, high cholesterol /blood pressure, feeling down about your appearance, or other consequences? If the answer to any of these is yes, it’s time to commit to change.
Jennifer Tewell is a Certified Alcohol and Other Drugs Counselor in addition to holding a Licensed Professional Counselor licensure. Together with a certification in Personal Training from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), Jennifer is looking to apply her experiences with behavior modification, change, and a brief therapy model to build a career based on passion and aimed at addressing the obesity epidemic from a psychological perspective.