Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
I am an emotional eater. When I have something I need to do but don’t feel like doing, I suddenly feel hungry and will reach for food. Over the years, I have given myself permission to procrastinate if I “need to eat” first.
I also use food to “reward” myself. If I have just finished a killer work out or spent hours grueling with a difficult surgery, as soon as I finish I want to “reward” myself with something my body does not need.
Interestingly, I had no idea I was even an emotional eater. I really had no idea I was subconsciously “eating” to procrastinate or “rewarding” myself for accomplishing something difficult.
It was not until I kept a food journal that I actually realized I did this. With the food journal it reminded me of how much I had already eaten and when so I knew I wasn’t really hungry. Interestingly, prior to the food journal experiment, I would forget what I had just eaten and was convinced I was hungry again.
As cumbersome as it can be to keep a food journal, it did finally give me insight on something I had been doing my entire life. I came to realize that I wasn’t really hungry at these times. I just did not want to do what needed to be done.
Food was, and still is if I am not careful, an emotional distraction for me. Like so many people, I got “hunger” confused with other emotions I was feeling.
Emotional eating can come in many different forms. These experiences and associations with food were often learned in childhood.
Emotional Eating: What Medical Studies Tell Us
Certain foods, especially the high sugar or unhealthy fatty foods, have provided us with emotional comfort over the course of our lives. Indeed, studies show that these are the foods emotional eaters primarily turn to for comfort.
Emotional eating is a major reason for eating more than what our bodies really need. Studies also show that unless emotional eating is addressed, long-term weight loss for emotional eaters is extremely difficult.
Six Strategies to Overcome Emotional Eating
The key for success and long-term health is to identify these emotions, determine if you really are hungry, and then redirect the action once these emotions arise. Here are my 6 tips:
1. Recognize Your Emotions
Are you sad, bored, lonely, stressed out, or angry? Most likely you are not really hungry at all. Most of the time I wasn’t really hungry at all.
It could be that what you really need is to connect with a supportive friend or family member, some physical activity, or to do something that you really enjoy like reading a great book, listening to some wonderful music, etc.
Often, if we do one of the above activities, the sensation of “hunger” will pass. You could even create a new rule for yourself such as “when I feel __, I will go for a walk first”.
2. Eat Three Healthy Options First
If you really feel that you need some food when you are feeling this way, try eating three healthy food options (i.e. celery, apple, handful of nuts, etc.) before you give yourself permission to turn to your old comfort foods. Generally, by the time you have had 3 healthy options you will lose the urge to return to the old comfort foods.
3. Have a Plan
If you are in a situation where you are feeling very overpowered by your emotions, it often helps to have a plan. Write down what you will eat for the day the night before. Prepare all of your foods ahead of time so you are ready to go the next day.
This is something that has been very helpful for me. If I don’t bring a lunch and snacks with me in the morning, I will reach for the pizza and Diet Coke as a “reward” after a long or difficult surgery.
This takes away the decision making process as you have already decided ahead of time what you will eat for the day. Write down everything you eat as part of this plan. Sometimes, just writing down everything that we eat makes us responsible to ourselves.
4. Get Enough Sleep and Physical Activity
Often I find that when people are not getting enough sleep or physical activity it is a normal thing to turn to these comfort foods. Our bodies are hard-wired to seek out high sugar/unhealthy high fat foods when we are sleep deprived, stressed out, etc.
5. Keep a Food Journal
This has been my best tool for fighting emotional eating. Too often, I forget what I have just eaten and think I am “hungry” again if I don’t want to do something or am very tired after a long surgery. The food journal reminds me that it is not hunger but a different emotion I am struggling with.
While food journals are a big hassle, this hassle has been another key to my success. When I walk past the nurses station and see chips, cookies, or candies just the fact that I will have to record what I eat prevents me from unconsciously taking “just a little”. The journal has taught me how to eat mindfully.
6. Learn From Bad Days
It is human to have bad days and “fall off the wagon”. When this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Rather, analyze the day and try to identify the triggers that led you to “fall off the wagon”. Learn from these experiences so that you will do better next time. A bad day can teach you how to improve going forward.
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Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.