Food and emotions
Even if you’ve never dealt with emotional eating, Covid-19 pandemic-induced stress, school closings, job stand-downs, and stay at home orders may trigger you to turn to food to cope. The inclination to eat emotionally is normal. We’re practically taught from birth to use food to address our feelings. We bond over treats, plan celebratory dinners, and bring meals to neighbours in times of need.
But ongoing emotional eating is different. An unchecked pattern of eating to ease your feelings during times of stress, can wreak havoc with your mental and physical energy, disrupt healthy sleep patterns, weaken immunity, and up health risks. The good news is you can systematically untangle food and emotions. Here’s a five-step strategy I use with my clients to foster a more balanced eating pattern, even under stressful circumstances.
Tune into your body’s cues
The first step is to tune into your body to differentiate between body hunger and mental hunger. Physical hunger has physical symptoms, like a growling tummy. If you feel hungry, but you’ve recently eaten or have no physical signs of hunger, check in with your feelings. In a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers say there are four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. My advice is to pinpoint the primary emotion you’re experiencing so that you can address it in ways that don’t involve food. For example, if you’re angry, doing something physical may help, like cleaning, organising, or working out. If you’re sad, a better match may be to call a friend, spend quality time with a pet, or watch a melancholy movie and release some tears.
Connect the dots between feelings and food
The second step is to further explore the ‘whys’ behind your eating choices, and the four-emotion concept can help. For example, do you find yourself eating crunchy or chewy foods when angry, and creamy, comfort foods when sad? If you’re not sure, start a food-and-feelings journal. In addition to tracking what you eat, record your hunger and fullness levels, and your emotions. The idea isn’t to police yourself, but rather learn about your relationship with food. Once you’re aware of your ‘whys’ (as in, I’m reaching for ice cream not because I’m hungry, but because I’m sad), you can consciously test out alternative coping tools.