Ever notice when something sweet just isn’t sweet enough? You know what I mean. The sugary treat you normally have that just isn’t very sugary anymore. Back in 1998, researchers set to find out why this happens. In a fairly cruel study design, they made a group of people taste something sweet and then subjected them to more and more stressful situations. Eventually, they got them to do the taste test again, which now tasted bitter, and less sweet than before. Our emotions, it seems, can affect how we perceive food.
If our emotions changing how we perceive food isn’t enough, they also affect our food choices. We’re more likely to choose foods that are higher in fat, sugar, and overall calories; show less restraint, and snack out of habit while we’re in a more “negative” emotional state. When this is combined with the fact that food doesn’t even taste as nice when we’re stressed, it’s difficult to feel satisfied with only one bite of a piece of chocolate.
Eating in response to your emotions can serve as a distraction, and tasting something you’d normally only have as a treat can make you feel better in that small moment. In my book, neither of those things are bad, and I don’t think there would ever be a time that I wouldn’t set a diet up for the odd indulgence here or there. It’s when our food choices become a coping mechanism or make losing or maintaining weight harder, leading to negative feelings, that I think it’s time to try to do something about it.
I’m going to define emotional eating as eating in response to emotion rather than for any physical need. The scientific literature, which needs to put people into groups in order to study them, breaks it down a bit further. Here they use the terms restrained eating, emotional eating, and external eating to roughly describe peoples eating habits. Restrained eaters under or overeat in response to emotions, emotional eaters change their food choices to regulate their mood, and external eaters eat differently based on their food environment. In reality, emotional eating isn’t so straight forward; we can all respond to different cues and slip in an out of the different boxes, so I’ll keep things simple and stick to my definition.
Understanding what emotional eating is, is all well and good; but what can you do about it? This is where most people go wrong. The general method is to try to somehow “fix”, or eradicate the issue, but that’s not what I’m going to suggest. Trying to beat emotional eating is missing the point, and ignoring or distracting your self from your need to indulge or overeat isn’t a good long term strategy. Instead, accepting how you feel is much more likely to help you manage.
We’re not machines. It’s totally normal to make slightly different food choices or to crave an indulgence based on how we’re feeling. it’s not something bad, or shameful; it’s just a thing. Realising this, that it’s not negative, it’s just how we’re feeling right now, is the first way I advise my clients to cope with it.
Acceptance is a word bandied around far too much in the various self-help articles we stumble across on the internet, but where emotional eating is concerned, it has a growing body of literature.
- In a study by Forman, 48 overweight women were asked to carry a box of sweets with them for 72 hours. Half of the group were taught a coping strategy that involved distracting themselves from the sweets, while the other half were taught that craving the sweets was normal and expected and that it was out of their control. By the end of the study, the group that was taught acceptance ate fewer sweets than the group with the distraction coping strategy.
- The same acceptance-based techniques were used in a study by Hooper et al, that found that 7 days of acceptance of chocolate cravings resulted in eating less chocolate in a taste test at the end of the week.
- Alberts showed that 7 weeks of acceptance based training led to fewer food cravings compared to a standard, distraction based, approach.
A previous client of mine struggled to manage his feelings of hunger. Feeling even slightly hungry felt uncomfortable, and would lead to snacking or general overeating. The more he tried to ignore the feelings of hunger, the worse they became. As a way to combat this, we worked on accepting that hunger was perfectly safe and normal, and instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, to simply accept that it was there. This practice led to a 24 hour fast, designed to help him accept hunger without having to eat.
I realised throughout the course of the day that I did not really experience proper hunger. There were a few moments where the feeling of, “I could eat now,” floated across my mind, but I think it is important to make a distinction between this and true hunger
While that worked great for him, I’m not suggesting anyone reading should do the same. Instead, use these two steps to practise acceptance:
- Realise that you can’t control hunger or cravings and that you shouldn’t try.
- Accept that you’re hungry, or craving something, now, but realise that your next meal isn’t far away.
Just focusing on these two things is enough to make a huge change in my experience, but sometimes we need something more to keep us from going off track. This is where we need a strategy for when things feel tough.
Implementation intentions are IF/THEN statements designed to help people to cope with difficult situations. When I want to avoid behaviours that don’t align with my goals, this is what I fall back on. Generally, avoidance leads to less satisfaction with progress and less personal control, so it’s important to have a strategy in place in order to make it work. Simple IF/THEN statements help avoidance based, goal-driven behaviour, by offering an automatic plan b.
Something as simple as saying “IF there are no decent lunch options at work THEN I will have a protein shake” can sound so simple to be almost patronising, but it’s a technique backed up by evidence.
- A study by Armitage split people who were equally motivated to reduce the amount of fat in their diet into two groups. One group was made to form an implementation intervention. By the end of the study, the group with the IF/THEN statement significantly reduced fat and overall calorie intake more than the other group.
- A study by Luszczynska showed that overweight women who made implementation intention statements lost 4.2kg compared to 2.1kg in a group who didn’t use implementation intentions.
Creating your own IF/THEN statements is easy, you start by identifying an IF situation that could derail things, and then come up with a THEN behaviour to help you cope. These statements can be based around something external, like avoiding pastries in your breakfast meeting; or something internal, like how tired you feel, or how hungry you are.
- IF I go out to eat and can’t guess the calorie content of my food, THEN I will order extra vegetables instead of chips
- IF I feel hungry during the day at work THEN I will have a Coke Zero and wait ten minutes instead of eating something.
There are two golden rules to using IF/THEN statements:
- They must be written by you. Getting someone else to do it, might seem like the easier option, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.
- Write them down. Making the statement on its own works, but implementation intentions are more effective if they’re actually written.
Accepting that you will feel hunger and cravings, and having the tools to cope when that happens is a great step towards helping manage emotional eating.
The purpose of this article isn’t to try to change how you feel or “fix” emotional eating; it’s to give you a couple of powerful tools to use when you find what you eat changes based on if you’re feeling bored, anxious, lonely, or sad.
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