Are you guilty of emotional eating? Here’s how to break the habit – fast

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  • Feeling down? Pass the crisps. Bad day at work? Hit the chocolate. Stop! says Anita Bhagwandas, who reveals how to shred the cycle of emotional hunger

    There are two very definite kinds of people in this world –those who eat for fuel and those who eat because of feelings. Studies suggest a whopping 70 per cent of us go through phases of emotionally triggered eating at some point, and more women are affected than men. For some, this torturous routine can become part of daily life.

    In her new book, How To Feel Differently About Food, therapist Sally Baker argues that emotional eating is finally being recognised for the complex issue it is. ‘The newest government health guidelines finally see emotional hunger as just as important as physical hunger, which is vital when it comes to changing nutritional and behavioural habits,’ she says. ‘We know what we’re meant to be eating, so the reasons we don’t do it need to be tackled.’

    Clinical psychologist Dr Mark Winwood agrees, ‘When we emotionally eat, hunger is never fully satiated. This hyper response to food suggests a stronger emotional connection to it than is healthy.’ The key to transforming your relationship with food this year, say experts, is identifying your emotional triggers. Here’s how to do it.

    The Anxious/Angry Eater
    The definition: Stress and anxiety undoes all your healthy eating. A work deadline approaches, you chomp through it. Fight with your partner? There’s a bag of Doritos for that. Essentially, with any kind of situation that causes you stress, your immediate thought is to use food to calm yourself.

    The craving: ‘Anxious eating can be tracked back to childhood,’ says Baker. ‘This is why stress eaters tend to veer more towards childhood foods like chocolate and crisps.’ Nutritionist Alex Jamieson, author of popular podcast The Crave Cast, agrees, ‘As women we often feel unsafe expressing anger or frustration, in case we’re labelled a bitch. So we take aggression out on crunchy foods instead.’ Crisps top the list of foods for anxious, angry types. We overproduce cortisol as a result of stress, resulting in salt cravings to gain adrenal balance. High-calorie foods also gives us a ‘happy hormone’ dopamine hit. ‘Then we associate that food with “managing” stress and it creates a neurological pathway that’s hard to break,’ explains Dr Winwood.

    What to do: Baker says the first step is to identify the intensity of the craving. Drink a glass of water. If hunger persists and you have a tense feeling (rather than stomach rumblings) or believe you must  have the item you’re craving, there is emotion and anxiety attached to it. Remember this is just a thought and distract yourself for at least five minutes. ‘When it’s passed, emotionally reward yourself for dealing with it. That builds up your resilience and makes you feel like you control your cravings, rather than the other way around.’ Jamieson advises crunching on carrot sticks to get that satiating angry crunch you’re craving – and hitting the gym 
for some kind of martial arts-based exercise, which works off some of your anxiety and frustration.

    The Perfectionist Eater
    The definition: ‘Perfectionists have an all or nothing approach to life in terms of unrealistic goals. That means dieting, then falling off the wagon repeatedly,’ says registered dietician and emotional eating expert Hala El-Shafie. Such eaters have often lost touch with their own internal hunger cues, focusing instead on fad diets and rules.

    The cravings: ‘Fatty, dairy-laden foods like cheese and cream are often ‘binge’ foods for perfectionists,’ says Baker. ‘That’s because they tend to follow very low-fat diets which can deprive the brain of essential nutrients like vitamin A – found in full-fat yogurt and butter – so crave them on a binge.’

    What to do: There’s a self-critical element to perfectionist eating that comes from childhood, explains Dr Winwood. ‘Most often the critical voice prompting a “binge” session is an adult from our childhoods, like a parent or teacher scolding us. Try to work out whose voice it is – is it male and female? – and why it makes you feel so bad,” he says. Watch your dialogue around food, too, adds El-Shafie. ‘Using the words “good” and “bad” to describe yourself and the foods you eat is part of the all-or-nothing mindset you should be trying to escape.’ Nobody is good 100 per cent of the time – cut yourself some slack and aim for moderation.

    The Comfort/Reward Eater
    The definition: You eat when you’re sad and when you’re happy. That’s because food has become a comfort and is a source of reward when anything happens. Your emotions and diet are chaotic, and you feel out of control much of the time.

    The cravings: Carbs with a side order of carbs. ‘They produce serotonin, which boosts your mood and has a calming effect. In other words, some people “drug themselves” with cheap carbs – the foods they associate with childhood comfort,’ says Baker. When there’s an excess of serotonin in response to stress, it can make your mood swing from high to low, then you’re back reaching for carbs to perk you up.

    What to do: ‘Look out for feelings of guilt when you’re eating – that’s a sign it could be triggered by a sense of comfort or reward,’ says Baker. Make a list of five non-food rewards you can give yourself, and keep the list visible – in your bag or on the fridge. ‘You need to break the cycle of food as comfort, but it takes time,’ says El-Shafie. Take baby steps, advises Baker.
‘If you tend to reward at home, make a point of going out for meals with friends more often – that puts an immediate restriction on how much you can eat.’

    The Zombie Eater
    The definition: You’re always sleep deprived and have become a master of existing on six hours’ sleep. You graze all day on caffeine and sugar to keep you going, which then keeps you awake at night. You’re on autopilot and rarely have the energy to recognise the emotional triggers behind your eating.

    The cravings: ‘Even one night of poor sleep can cause a cascade of hormonal imbalance that leads to sugar and caffeine reliance,’ says Jamieson. ‘Lack of sleep upsets insulin levels, resulting in spikes and crashes of blood sugar. Since your brain is the top consumer of glucose in the body, you’ll crave more sugar and caffeine to get through the day and to focus. If we’re sleep-deprived, we don’t produce as much leptin in our fat cells overnight. That’s the hormone that tells our brains we’re full. We can consume about 300 more calories a day following bad sleep,’ says Dr Winwood.

    What to do: Understand why you behave the way you do. ‘You’re ruled by subconscious snacking and crashing,’ says Baker. ‘Keep a food diary to log the strength of your hunger from one to ten. Stop mindless grazing and aim for genuine hunger of nine or ten before you eat. Write down whatever comes into your mind the moment you reach for a snack. Repeat it each time you have a craving to understand what’s motivating your eating. Before long you start doing that instinctively.’ To tackle sleep issues, download an app called Sleepio (iTunes), which uses CBT to help you fall asleep.

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