Why we emotionally eat, and how to end it

Whether it’s an approaching deadline, a suffocating commute on London’s most expensive human pen (the tube), or simply having to spend a weekend with the in-laws… reaching a certain level of stress or self-pity can mean bad food choices are inevitable.

For some, it’s pizza and carb-heavy meals, but for the majority, it’s chocolate. Sufficiently sweetened to counteract cocoa’s bitterness – a combination with a calling too difficult to disregard – it’s not surprising we crave the stuff, and seek it out in need of comfort.

If the concept of emotional eating is sounding familiar to you, you’re probably wondering why exactly it occurs, and what you can do to avoid it. Growing up, were you ever subject to ‘only sweets at weekends’ or rewarded with sweet treats once you’d finished your homework or a household chore? We’ve quite literally been programmed to associate sweets and chocolate as ‘treat’ foods; feeling lucky when we get our hands on them. When this feeling persists into adolescence or adulthood (when parents no longer rule our eating habits), we’re more likely to seek out these foods.

Add stress into the equation, and a recipe for disaster begins to form. One study divided participants into two groups to see how stress changed their eating habits. A public speaking exercise was used to induce stress in one group, whilst the others were left stress-free. Then, all participants were presented with a buffet meal. Can you guess what those under stress chose?  Compared with the stress-free group, they piled their plates high with sweet fatty foods.  However, only those who stated they were emotional eaters tended to over-indulge.

Clearly, not all of us turn to food when we feel vulnerable. Surveys of peoples eating habits under stress show that only a quarter to half of the samples reported eating more when stressed. Good news for some; slightly unfortunate for those who pile on the pounds during deadlines.

So, what does this tell us? As humans, we learn to associate certain foods with certain feelings; pleasure, relief, comfort and so on. Then, surely we can reverse the process: unlearning this ‘need for greed’. What’s more, eating for comfort is clearly not a natural human instinct, as at least half of us can cope without.

How hard, then, is breaking the link; the one that connects so strongly the stress and self-pity we can’t seem to escape, with the detrimental food choices we make? Probably not as hard as you’d first expect.

If it’s a case of using food to unwind after work, it may be that you need to break routine, create healthy habits, and replace the automatic nature of your eating pattern. Likewise, even if stress hits you unexpectedly like a ton of bricks, bringing comfort eating as a coping strategy to conscious awareness can help. Questioning whether you are even hungry or finding an activity to do when all you want to do is gorge will become easier.

Irrespective of the type of stress or amount of self-pity, incentives will work. Save the money you splash out on your daily caffeine fix at overpriced coffee shops and use this money for something fun.  Reward yourself.  Try telling people of your intentions, and listen to their response. This type of positive reinforcement has been scientifically proven to work—and may just be what keeps you going…

Emotional eating has also been linked to cravings. So stay tuned, or simply subscribe, for innovative and weird ways to abolish chocolate cravings (without having to give it up!).