Even though approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, it’s a topic that many of us still find very difficult to talk about. As a result, there are many commonly-held misunderstandings about mental health, which make it harder for people to seek the help they need. Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May) provides an opportunity to break down the stigmas associated with talking about mental health and its impact on our day to day lives.
Emotional eating can be both a symptom and a cause of mental health difficulties. For many people, food is a source of significant comfort and escape in their lives. While occasionally enjoying food as a “pick me up” or reward is a normal part of life and nothing to worry about, it can cause problems when it becomes a person’s main or only strategy for managing emotions and coping with stress, or it happens so regularly that they begin to feel that they are no longer in control of their eating habits. Often, people may not realise that they have difficulties with emotional eating until they start to see the physical impact of significant overeating, particularly of unhealthy sweets and snacks.
1. First, understand that emotional hunger is very different from physical hunger. Emotional hunger can appear quickly and lead to cravings for junk food. If you find yourself eating in secret, feeling bad about what you’ve eaten, or experiencing physical signs like bloating, stomach pains and poor skin, it could be a sign that you are indulging in emotional eating.
2. Try to recognise why you are eating. Emotional eaters often eat to deal with stress or anxieties, or use food as a reward for other achievements. They also regularly eat when they are not physically hungry.
3. Once you’ve recognised why you are eating, it can become easier – with practice – to identify and understand your emotional eating triggers. When you find yourself opening the fridge door, stop and think about how you’re feeling. Are you angry about something? Perhaps you’re scared, sad or anxious? Or even just lonely? If you can identify these, you can take the first steps to regaining control of your relationship with food.
4. Emotional eating is our body’s way of finding fulfilment in difficult times. Learning to recognise your emotional state is key to finding an alternative to eating. Try to devise different things to do: if you’re anxious, try to burn some energy with a quick burst of exercise, such as a dance or walk; if you’re tired, take a bath; if you’re bored, deliberately go to your favourite hobby or find a new TV show to watch.
5. Use mindful eating to help you avoid the excesses of emotional eating. Before you go shopping, draw up a healthy shopping list – and stick to it rigidly once you get in the supermarket. This will help to remove some of the temptations of high-sugar or high-fat foods when you are at home.
6. Change the way you eat your main meals. Make sure you eat when you have an appetite, but not when you are extremely hungry. Serve smaller portions (use smaller plates if you are struggling not to serve your normal portion), take smaller bites, and spend longer than normal chewing your food. These steps will help you feel just as satisfied as you would from a larger meal eaten more quickly.
7. Try to ensure that whenever you eat, you focus only on the food. Don’t eat while watching television, working, driving, or reading. By eating while occupying your mind with something else, you are less likely to pay attention to what you are eating. Eating at a table, with no other distractions, will make you much more aware of the food you’re eating and could help you to reduce your consumption.
8. If you find yourself searching for chocolate or ice-cream later in the evening, aim to stop and pause for just one minute before you eat. The next time it happens, pause for two minutes. Each time it happens, build up the length of the pause. Over time, you will be able to get more control of your cravings.
Please note: these tips are intended as a starter guide and should not be taken as formal medical advice. If you are suffering from a severe case of emotional eating, you should seek professional help from your GP.