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Emotional Eating

Release Date: January 19, 2021

Food plays a large role in our social interactions. Many holidays, special occasions or even sporting events, for example, involve food. For some, however, food becomes a way to cope with difficult situations. Emotional eating is consuming food for comfort or reasons other than physical hunger.

Individuals may find themselves eating for reasons such as stress, boredom, sadness, anxiety or loneliness. However, triggers for emotional eating are not always negative events. Some people find that they eat whenever they feel happy or excited.

People who eat for emotional reasons often experience feelings of disappointment, guilt or failure after overeating. Emotional eating can delay goals to maintain or lose body weight. It can also set off a destructive cycle of overeating and strict dieting, which is detrimental to mental and physical health.

One key to successful weight management lies in identifying emotional eating patterns and devising strategies to overcome trigger situations.

Identifying Patterns

The best way to identify eating for emotional reasons is to keep a food journal. Studies show that people who log their food habits are more successful at weight loss and weight management than those who do not keep a log.

In the food journal, use the “5 Ws” method to help determine a pattern:

  • Who were you with?
  • What did you eat?
  • When did you eat?
  • Where did you eat?
  • Why did you eat?

Tips for Overcoming Emotional Eating

  • Harness the power of self-talk: Identify and recognize times of negative and self-defeating statements such as, “I cannot do this” or “I failed.” Replace those statements with positive and goal-targeted comments such as, “This is hard, but it will be worth it” and “I will learn and make a better choice next time.” It is helpful to also mark these statements in a food journal.
  • Rate your hunger: Before reaching for food, rate your hunger on a scale from 1-10 with 10 being ravenous. For ratings of 5 of less, opt for an apple. If you find you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, emotions are more likely driving the urge to eat. Food will not satisfy a person eating for emotional reasons. Instead, it is important to discover other more productive ways to address the issues.
  • Find alternatives: People who found comfort in food in the past are likely to turn to it again in the future. It is important to find other ways to deal with positive and negative stressors in life. Go for a walk, read a book, take a bath, listen to music or do deep breathing exercises. When you find something that works, incorporate it into your life or come back to it when you need a different outlet for coping.
  • Three-bite rule: People usually experience the greatest pleasure from food in the first three bites. After that, the senses become dulled. Take three bites of your favorite indulgent foods and focus on fully enjoying them.
  • Practice good dental hygiene: Chewing a strong mint gum, having a breath mint or brushing your teeth right after a meal helps deters the urge to go for seconds or dessert
  • Progress, not perfection: As with any new practice, there is always that initial stage of excitement and motivation to make changes. Prepare for the ups and downs and understand they are a natural process of learning and are to be expected. Stay vigilant in monitoring triggers as they change over time.

The key to success is to remain focused and keep pushing forward. Celebrate every small success and find joy in achievements. Every small victory brings you closer to attaining your goal.

Your Employee Assistance Program is Here to Help

If you would like to talk to someone about making a plan to help you combat emotional eating, your Component Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can help. The EAP provides you and your eligible family members with someone to talk to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if you need help coping with this holiday season. Services are provided at no cost to you. For help or more information, contact your Component EAP or send an email to worklife@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 01/19/2021
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