End Emotional Eating

Eating your emotions? Here’s how to put down that chocolate bar and find a better way to deal.

It’s 5:40pm on a Tuesday and Xoliswa’s* presentation did not go well. Rather than wowing her boss, she found herself faced with questions she didn’t know how to answer, and feeling humiliated in front of her managers and peers. Letting herself into her flat, she steps over the bag of gym clothes she’d intended to grab before dashing off to her Zumba class and heads straight for kitchen. There, she grabs a bag of crisps, a packet of chocolate raisins and a tub of expensive ice cream. The minute the food touches her lips she starts to feel soothed and comforted – but only for a moment.

Emotional eating and the weight gain that comes with it affects a lot of women. As Dr Luc Evenepoel, author of Dr Luc’s Promise: Lose the Weight and Keep it Off (available on Amazon and Kalahari), explains, ‘When you eat out of hunger you satisfy the brain’s “hunger center”, but when eating happens for emotional reasons you are satisfying the brain’s “emotion-and-reward center”.’  In other words, he adds, ‘Since you are not eating to sustain life you’ll overeat and store these excess calories in fat tissue.’ And this is the reason why most people go for the sweet stuff – the brain experiences that as the most rewarding. And while the act of eating can be experienced as an emotional stabilser, nobody reaches for broccoli when they’re having a bout of emotional bingeing.

Identify your food issues
While emotional eating provides quick relief for feelings of rejection, humiliation, loneliness and sadness, the resulting weight gain and feeling of being out of control quickly overrides the temporary comfort of the food, leaving emotional eaters feeling even worse about themselves. And this can become a vicious cycle: feel bad – eat – gain weight – feel worse – eat more. This is why it’s important to be aware of whether you’re an emotional eater or not, says Evenepoel. And if you are, he asserts that the solution is not to go on a diet or consult a dietitian. He says you shoudl rather see a psychologist to address the reasons why you are using food in this way. ‘Far too many people try to treat poor eating habits on their own, but there are specialists for that. If you had appendicitis, you wouldn’t try to cut out your own appendix, would you?’.

Put those red flags up!
Also, try to recognise when and why you opt for emotional eating. When such a situation arises, and you head in the direction of the biscuit jar, don’t judge yourself, but simply pause for a few moments. Ask yourself something like: ‘Am I actually hungry, or am I going to empty that jar because I am upset/sad/whatever?’ Resist going any closer to the jar. The first time, you’ll probably manage to resist for only a few minutes. The next time will be a few more minutes, and – practice makes perfect – you’ll soon get to a stage where you can resist for hours. And after hours, your moments of upset should be over. This is called mindfulness, and has been used with great success not only in emotional eating, but also for addiction and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).

Lose the mood food
As Dr Evenepoel advises, ‘Instead of eating the biscuits, do something else that will give you a sense of reward: emptying your inbox, writing that letter that you’ve been postponing for so long, call up the friend you’ve been thinking about for months. Make a list of rewarding actions, and go to that list instead of to the fridge. Magazines always tell you to go “do something” instead of eating mood-food, but what it’s important is that that something needs to be rewarding. If not, your limbic system will steer you back to the junk food.’ Also, make it easier for yourself by simply not keeping ‘mood food’ in the house. You’re much less likely to drive to the 7-11 than open the fridge/freezer.

Get moving
Physical exercise decreases the symptoms of a depressed mood and of anxiety by 40-50%. This does not mean you have to go to the gym, but it does mean you have to get off the couch. For at least 20 minutes every day, get some movement into your body: walk, dance, cycle, skip, take the stairs instead of the lift, whatever, as long as you move. The benefit has been proven over and over again, and cannot be stressed enough. And, what’s more, it’s free. Says Dr Evenepoel, ‘It’s not about burning calories, it’s about making you feel emotionally better and stopping a destructive pattern.’

Read the latest COSMO for one woman’s ‘Letter to Anorexia’ on page 50, and ‘The Skinny On Food And Drink’ on page 106.