Eating only when you’re hungry should be the easiest, most natural thing in the world, but it’s not. Many of us eat to lose weight and some of us eat too much without realising it and end up gaining weight.
People also eat because of boredom, sadness, loneliness, anger or even relaxation.
While emotional eating usually leaves us feeling bloated and guilty, it does actually make us feel better on a chemical level.
“Fat and carbohydrate release pain-relieving opioids into the brain making us feel better,” says Professor Julia Buckroyd, a psychologist and specialist in eating behaviour at the University of Hertfordshire.
But that becomes habit forming and is also a stumbling block to losing weight. Dealing with the emotional reasons why we overeat is a major factor in sustained long-term weight loss.
How to tackle the problem? Here’s 5 daily emotions you need to watch that could be hampering your best weight loss efforts:
You want: A chocolate and sweet cup of tea to help you calm down.
Non-food solution: Before you eat anything, ask yourself, “What is this about?” This acts as a red flag before a binge and also helps you gain perspective and think the problem out.
Next, take a walk. It can help you think things through and change your mindset by releasing mood-enhancing endorphins. A study at the University of Exeter found that just 15 minutes of walking can reduce food cravings.
You want: A large packet of salty chips to munch away at.
Non-food solution: Most people eat to avoid their least favourite emotions says clinical psychologist Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert, co-author of Overcoming Weight Problems.
If you’re used to keeping your emotions in check to keep the peace, this can mean a stuffing down of angry emotions with food. But psychologists are increasingly telling us to acknowledge emotions such as anger instead of acting on them or numbing them with food.
Writing things down will help you to face the emotion. Learning to sit with your emotions, be it anger, stress or anxiety robs them of their power over you and will help you not to overeat. You can also keep a ‘food and feelings’ diary which will help you lose weight and keep it off.
Emotion: Lonely or bored at night
You want: Creamy vanilla or chocolate ice-cream
Non-food solution: Unstructured spare time in the evenings is often the most dangerous time for overeating or emotional eating says Dr David Veale, a psychiatrist and co-author of Manage Your Mood: How To Use Behavioural Techniques To Overcome Depression.
Plan your week on a Sunday and try to include a few evening activities that are important to you. Sticking to a timetable of activities, where before you were at a loose end, can also help if the problem is boredom and the loneliness is long-term.
Emotion: Tired but can’t relax
You want: Pasta drenched in butter and cheese
Non-food solution: This is your brain’s way of calming itself as the white pasta will immediately release tryptophan, from which serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter is made. If you’re tired and wired, you probably need something other than food in the short-term to calm you down says Dr Roger Gould, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
Anything from a 10-minute snooze to a short meditation can help. If you’re bingeing out of tiredness, ask yourself what you need to do to help you relax, that doesn’t involve food, and you’re halfway there.
Emotion: Tense and pressurised
You want: Coffee and a biscuit – or six!
Non-Food solution: Pause and ask yourself why you’re avoiding the task at hand, advises Dr Gould. You might need a break or if you’re putting off something physical – you may not have the energy. Make a decision about whether you’re going to carry on or take a break and come back to it, perhaps in the morning. Also try drinking some peppermint tea. It’s stimulating without the crash and burn side-effects.