The Nasty Truth About Roots of Emotional Eating

Emotional eatingEpisode 57–Around the holidays, we often engage in emotional eating. That’s because the holidays bring both joy and stress. Who makes all the food and often buys all the gifts? Mom. Who plans the parties and decorates? Mom. And, you guessed it, it’s mom who gathers all the craft supplies and situates all the guests who arrive. So, what does mom do to manage the stress and frustration? She eats. Let’s explore how this happen begins so we can better understand how to combat it. In the next few episodes, we will discuss it’s effects on the body, what to do about it, and how to get natural relaxation without gaining the extra pounds.

What is emotional eating?

Triggered by negative events

First, the basic idea of emotional eating is eating to suppress negative emotions. Essentially, it’s eating to feel better. But emotional hunger doesn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s always a trigger of sorts that causes you to start feeling hungry, even if it’s not clear at first. These triggers vary depending on the person and situation.

This tends to be a very straightforward cause and effect situation. Because of something in your life that caused distress, you then feel emotional hunger. For example, let’s say someone cut you off in traffic or your relative called and started yelling at you over the phone. You feel bad, of course, and a little while later, you grab the bag of chips to get your mind off of it and feel better. Your stomach doesn’t actually need food. But, your mind has learned to associate eating with alleviating negative feelings. So, you engage in emotional eating.

Like an addiction

It’s not uncommon for people to feel the urge to emotionally eat without fully understanding why. This is because they’ve blocked themselves off from their emotions. So, they don’t associate the day’s events with their eating habits. But, it’s important to do a bit of self-analysis to learn about your own triggers.

You can figure out your triggers by watching patterns in your own life. Then, you can see when certain things happen and how they drive you to eat during stressful times. You can discover your patterns by keeping a journal or practicing some mindfulness. It is important to notice what you do when something irritates you, someone upsets you, or you feel stressed out. Do you grab some chocolate every time you feel sad? Do you eat while cooking when you’re upset about something? Write these things down.

This knowledge of your own triggers is crucial to fixing your emotional eating habits. Because, if you don’t understand your motivations, you can’t fix it. You have to know your enemy, so to speak.

While many people think that you can simply will away emotional hunger, that’s not quite the case. It’s not as simple as just “stopping eating” for many people, because it’s almost like an addiction. And that’s why diet after diet fails. It’s an emotional hunger, a spiritual hunger, that is temporarily sated by food.

Emotional eating is a strong urge that they feel like they must fulfill because it is meeting a deeper need. This is what drives them to keep on doing it, even though they know it’s bad for them. Studies show that this is because a sugar addiction is just as powerful as a cocaine addiction. If you feel this might be you, I talk more about the dangers of sugar and offer a Ditch the Sugar Habit Bundle to help you.

How did the emotional eating start?

Emotional Eating Often Starts with childhood rewards

So, where did this correlation come from? How do we develop those triggers? Well, from our early years, food is treated as something other than a nutrition source. Think back to when you were a child – maybe even your toddler years. Remember hearing this–“You can have dessert when you finish your dinner.” That’s one form of turning food into something other than what it’s meant to be. You also may have been taken for a treat like ice cream if you got good grades. This is another way that parents turn food into a reward. It sets the stage for rewarding ourselves later in life when we need those “feel good” endorphins during stressful times.

Other situations

Another example is receiving a treat when we hurt ourselves or felt sad. For instance, if you fell off a bicycle, your mom or dad may have given you a popsicle or cookie to calm your tears. In this way, you grew up associating food as a form of solace and comfort.

You didn’t know it then, and neither did your parents, but you were being conditioned for a psychological link between eating and emotions. Even schools do this sometimes, such as handing out treats for those who followed a rule or got a certain grade.

(However, moms, giving kids food rewards doesn’t automatically lead to an emotional eating issue later on. But, it’s not a bad idea to switch it up with other rewards such as monetary rewards, toys, a special outing, or something else in place of food.)

Not everyone with these childhood experiences will develop an emotional eating issue, but for some people, they become predisposed. You start to see that unhealthy foods can be both convenient and comforting, eliminating some of your stress in certain moments. You may begin to think that in order to “make it through” a tough time, you need food to be on hand. 

Important role in social gatherings

Finally, food is an important part of social gatherings and happy times. Food isn’t just used for pain avoidance. Family dinners and events are filled with delicious meals, including birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving – even graduation celebrations, retirement parties and more.

We learn to associate specific foods or meals with feelings of happiness during these events, so they become woven into our lives with fondness. Later, when you encounter tumultuous times, you’ll seek out foods that may be unhealthy, simply because they take you back to a time when life was pleasant. So, I urge you to take some time to examine patterns of emotional eating, especially during the holiday season when we tend to put on extra weight. Food is only our medicine if it helps us attain health. It should never take the place of Jesus.

Learn more about how emotional eating and your emotions go hand in hand.

Check out Julie Naturally’s Healthy Mom Hacks for the Holidays series!

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