How Your Diet Can Reduce Anxiety
It’s the reason why so many diets fail: We don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger. Many of us also turn to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness, or boredom. And after eating, we feel even worse. Not only does the original emotional issue remain, but we also feel guilty for overeating. No matter how powerless you feel over food cravings, though, there is an answer.
By practicing mindful eating, you can change the emotional habits that have sabotaged your diet in the past, and regain control over both food and your feelings.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating (or stress eating) is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. You might reach for a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, order a pizza if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.
Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good at the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed.
No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions, learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly, regain control of your weight, and finally put a stop to emotional eating.
Ask yourself these questions
- 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?
The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame.
Ways to combat emotional eating
Identify your emotional eating triggers.What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Common causes of emotional eating include:
- Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
- Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and the food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. At the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
- Childhood habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you, sweets, when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or you’re eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom.
- Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourage you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.
- Stress – Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Find other ways to feed your feelings.If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food.
In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
Alternatives to emotional eating.If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better, plays with your dog or cat, or look at a favorite photo or cherished memento.
If you’re anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favorite song, squeezing a stress ball, or taking a brisk walk.
If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, light some scented candles, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket.
If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (sports, group activates, book reading, painting, etc.).
What is mindful eating?Mindful eating is a practice that develops your awareness of eating habits and allows you to pause between your triggers and your actions. Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, you feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now. Because you’ve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower just isn’t up to snuff. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
Take 5 before you give in to a craving.Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you even realize what you’re doing, you’ve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
Can you put off eating for five minutes?Or just start with one minute. Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait.
While you’re waiting, check in with yourselfHow are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Learn to accept your feelings—even the bad onesWhile it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention. To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.
Emotional Eating: Your Questions Answered
1. Does the Mediterranean diet protect against depression?We already know that a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil reduces inflammation and may be beneficial for heart health. But eating a Mediterranean diet can also protect against and prevent depressive disorders.
If you aren’t going to Spain or Greece anytime soon, pretend you're there by copying their diets. Add more veggies to your potlucks, or shake on the herbs and spices to reduce inflammation.
2. Will eating fast food lead to an increased risk of depression?Eating fast food like hamburgers, sausages, and pizza, as well as commercial baked goods such as muffins, doughnuts, and croissants, have been shown to be associated with an increased risk for depression.
Do your best to balance out your food choices with some healthy, fresh options whenever available.
3. Will being in a positive mood lead to eating more?It’s not just a bad mood that can lead to eating more food. Negative mood and positive mood BOTH lead to more food intake.
This research doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be in a good mood! Try to find balance in your moods, keeping steady and stable without the extreme peaks and valleys that could cause you to overeat
4. Can you eat yourself into a bad mood in just two days?A study revealed that the more calories, saturated fat, and sodium people ate, the more negative mood they reported two days later. The researchers suggest that food causes mood shifts.
If you find yourself in a bad mood, look at what you are eating. You can make some immediate changes that will translate into quick lifts in your mood.
5. Can snacks affect your well-being?Consumption of fruit is associated with lower anxiety, depression, and emotional distress than consumption of chips/chocolate. Similarly, scores for somatic symptoms, cognitive difficulties, fatigue were greater with chips/chocolate consumption.
Take note of your snacking behaviors during the holidays! If you find yourself eating too many cookies or indulging in lots of chocolate, shake up your snacking routine by getting some fresh fruit. Your mood will thank you for it (and those around you will, too!).
6. Can your emotions change how foods taste?A study came out recently that assessed taste and emotions of people who attended hockey games. There were a total of eight games: four wins, three losses, and one tie. The researchers found that positive emotions during the winning games correlated with enhanced sweet and diminished sour intensities while negative emotions lead to heightened sour and decreased sweet tastes.
Take time to taste your food and have an awareness that the emotions you are feeling are not only influencing what you are eating but how things taste. If you take your time to eat mindfully, you’ll be more at the moment, and, as the studies suggest, you’ll likely eat less and feel.
7. Can being bored drive you to eat?Those prone to being bored and lacking emotional coping skills can lead to inappropriate eating behavior, like eating when bored or in response to negative emotions.
Being bored is probably the least of your worries during the holidays; however, you may have more downtime which means that you could be looking for things to do. Fill your time with healthy physical activity to keep you pleasantly busy.
8. Does the personality you have, drive you’re eating habits?The brought to light many findings of the relationship between one’s personality and eating, including:
- High openness to experience was associated with higher fruit, vegetable, and salad and lower meat and soft drink consumption.
- High agreeableness was associated with low meat consumption.
- Conscientiousness promoted fruit consumption prevented meat consumption and intake of sweet and savory foods and of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
- Neuroticism promoted consumption of sweet and savory foods by promoting emotional and external eating.
Perhaps we can’t change who we are, but we can become more aware of our actions. If you find that you are always on edge and feeling neurotic, try to put yourself in the space of agreeableness and openness, which will contribute positively to your eating habits.
Learn more about my diet plans that are designed to match your daily habits and routines.