What is emotional eating, actually? Well, do you eat when you’re bored? Or upset? Or sad? How about when you feel bad and want to feel something else, even if it’s just “feeling full?”
If you said yes to any of these, this is a form of emotional eating, or simply put, eating when you aren’t physiologically hungry to cover up a negative feeling.
In the media and in daily life, we see each other “using” food – often the more energy dense and less nutritious varieties – to cope with negative feelings.
Believe it or not, seeing this repeated relationship over and over again teaches us this response to stress or anxiety. We essentially learn to handle anxiety or sadness by eating more food than our bodies actually need.
The Science Behind Emotional Eating
There is some evidence to back this up as well.
A study conducted back in 1987 looked at the consumption of ice cream between women who dieted or restricted their calorie intake for either weight loss or management and women who did not when exposed to anxiety-inducing situations.
We learn to handle anxiety or sadness by eating more food than our bodies actually need.
Their results showed that when hungry, non-dieters ate less when anxious than when not anxious whereas the dieting group ate more when anxious. When not hungry, both groups of women ate the same amount with no differences when they were anxious.
This and other studies suggest that our emotions do not directly influence our physiological hunger cues unless we are manipulating them on purpose (i.e. dieting or purposefully restricting).
What’s Wrong With Emotional Eating?
Okay, so chocolate makes you feel better when you feel bad. What’s so wrong with that?
There’s definitely nothing wrong with soothing negative feelings and giving your soul space to heal. There are, however, some physical consequences to your health when you eat for reasons other than to fuel your body.
A study published in the American Journal of Physiology asserted that on average, night time snacking in particular can easily account for more than a quarter of the total calories you consume in a day.
It’s typically around 300 to 500 calories, just from little bits of something here and there.
Moreover, another study found significant associations between stress and emotional eating and increases in biological risk factors associated with diabetes and other chronic health issues.
What Can You Do About Emotional Eating?
Well crap, what do you do now?
While emotional and stress-related overeating is still a largely debated topic, one coping skill that shows a lot of promise is yoga and mindfulness! Woohoo!
Yoga is frequently used as an adjunct therapy in the treatment of eating disorders and other mental health issues to help sufferers self-soothe, find relaxation, and empower themselves to take control over haphazard coping mechanisms that provide short-term relief and long-term problems.
How do we do this in practice? A study done in 2017 looked at the effects of a three-month Kundalini Yoga practice on perceived stress as well as cortisol and alpha amylase levels in the saliva. (Yes, science can tell if you’re stressed by looking at your spit!).
After three months of regular practice, participants reported an immediate reduction in perceived stress levels which coincided with a significantly reduced level of cortisol.
While this particular study had a smaller group and was not directly looking at emotional eating, this same concept is applicable to redirecting yourself from diving into a bag of granola because “it’s the only good thing in your life right now.”
There are other good things in your life but we’ll get there!
How Yoga and Mindfulness Can Help With Emotional Eating
Using your yoga practice on and off the mat gets you back to the “FED” mindset (Focused, Energized, Disciplined). When we are here, it’s much harder to allow things like emotional waves and the “I deserve this” trap to ensnare you.
The more you develop other habits such as a frequent and regular yoga practice, even when you still have the urge to eat when you’re not hungry, the more it will:
- Make you aware of how strong/deep your cravings go by improving your mindfulness
- Acquaint you with your body through focused movement, breathing, and loving concentration (honoring your hunger and respecting your fullness)
- Build your confidence as you build your practice
- Adopt a flexible mindset
- Give you something else to do
Certified Eating Disorder Specialist Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S of Choosing Therapy, an online therapy platform, explains further:
“The use of natural methods to manage emotional eating are a common part of most treatment plans. Mindfulness, for example, allows clients to focus on the here and now. Activities such as yoga are especially helpful in training our minds to focus on the present. This is important for those with emotional eating concerns as thoughts are generally negative and focused on unfavorable evaluations of self.”
Kerry Heath goes on to share how, “Learning to practice self-care and relaxation are also integral parts of recovering from an eating disorder or condition related to negative body-image and an unhealthy relationship with food. When a person is able to care for themselves and redirect negative thoughts, they can break the cycle of coping with emotions through either over- or under-eating.”
Yoga and mindfulness can look different for everyone. For some, it’s a 90-minute mat practice full of Sun Salutations, inversions, and balances.
For others, it’s sitting quietly in meditation, or enjoying the sounds of life around you, the smell of grass, flowers, and rain. Whatever it is for you, this practice can help you come back to yourself and put food in its rightful place in your life while creating space in your life to adapt and grow happily and healthily!
Here Are 8 Ways to Avoid Emotional Eating:
1. Practice Mindfulness
The easiest way to give yourself that room you need is to stop and take a few deep breaths, paying close attention to how your lungs feel as they inflate, the sensation of your ribs as they expand, and how your brain feels with a sudden rush of oxygen.
2. Drink Water
Taking a drink of plain water helps because most of the time dehydration can contribute to agitation or irritability, which are other manifestations of stress that can push us to f@&# it mode to make us reach for a snack distraction.
Self-massage (i.e. rubbing your neck, temples, or stroking your scalp) is also another wonderful sensory stimulation that can help your feel soothed and pampered. It can also take care of that “I deserve this” urge, because who doesn’t need a massage right now?
4. Take Five
Take five minutes to help you pull back into your body and gauge whether you are actually hungry or need to redirect yourself to another activity. Do something nice for yourself for these five minutes.
Write down three things you’re grateful for, or send a loved one a message to let them know you’re thinking of them. Brushing your hair or putting on a face mask is another way to spend these five minutes and pamper yourself. Who said we can’t treat ourselves?
5. Respect Your Fullness
Resist the FOMO. The granola, the almond butter, or whatever else you’re craving will be there when you’re actually hungry.
It’s not going to magically disappear (and even if it does, chances are you won’t miss it that much). Use your breath to check in: Are you still hungry? Are you hungry at all? Is this a feeling you can solve with water, stretching, or focusing on something else?
Honoring the boundary of your stomach is the same as honoring your hunger. Take what you need, but acknowledge when you are full and no longer in need.
6. Build Your Confidence
Emotional eating can lead us to develop that binge-shame-restrict-repeat cycle which is a thorn in the foot of our confidence in our sense of self-control.
Building a consistent yoga practice, even just 10 minutes a day (whether it is moving on your mat or meditating before bed), helps you ground down into the present so you can handle daily stresses better.
But not only that, it also helps you build loving confidence in yourself so that you can be disciplined and stick to something, no matter what (which goes back to the “FED” mindset – Focused, Energized, Disciplined – that we discussed earlier).
7. Adopt a Flexible Mindset
Yoga acquaints us with our limitations as well as our abilities. Yoga never tells you that you have to be able to do a Headstand or hold a 10-minute Plank. It does, however, tell you to show up for yourself and honor your body’s limitations.
In the same way with food, we simply cannot eat our bad feelings away. Your digestive system can’t take that kind of abuse and doesn’t deserve it.
In cultivating a truthful, loving relationship with our bodies, it’s important to recognize how to nourish them properly – when to eat, when to move, and when to do something else. It is this flexibility of the mind that will allow us to assess the present moment – and our needs – for what they are, emotions aside.
8. Give Yourself Something Else to Do
All the lofty esoteric meaning aside, we all have to start somewhere. At the end of the day, sometimes you just need a good old-fashioned distraction.
Emotional cravings and erroneous hunger aren’t related to your physical body’s need for nourishment.
So actively diverting your attention by placing yourself on your mat and staying there for at least 15 minutes can pull you back from the edge of hangry and into your Focused, Energized, Disciplined mindset.
The Takeaway on Emotional Eating and How to Use Yoga to Prevent It
Emotional eating can be overcome in a healthy and empowered way. Yoga, along with the other natural ways that we discussed in this article can help.
It’s also important to know that you are not alone and that you have resources available to you if you feel you need help. The Crisis Text Line is a free service that allows you to message a crisis counselor.
The NEDA hotline offers text, phone, and chat support among other services.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.