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How to avoid emotional eating

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Mindfulness apps are a modern way to get back in touch with your emotions, rather than using food, alcohol and dieting as a distraction.

Emotional eating is using food as a distraction from negative feelings. But food isn’t the only avoidance strategy we use. For some, it’s a glass or three of wine after a stressful day at work, or scrolling through Instagram and Facebook feeds for an hour when bored. For others, focusing on a new weight-loss diet is a way to distract themselves, rather than addressing relationship issues, trauma from childhood or other major problems.

Unfortunately, avoiding emotions doesn’t work in the long run, because they serve a purpose in helping us communicate with others and connect with ourselves. In addition, by using food as a distraction, we’re typically eating when we’re not hungry and therefore ingesting more energy than we need.

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So, what do we do? Using a mindfulness smartphone app each day helps to focus on the present, rather than past issues or possible future problems, using guided meditations. Mindfulness allows us to acknowledge and accept how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking, and get in tune with our bodies.

A 2014 review found evidence that mindfulness-based approaches such as meditation may help to reduce emotional and binge eating. More recently, Australian researchers trialled a mindfulness app among university students and found it reduced stress and emotional eating when used regularly for 11 weeks.

But, if you still feel like eating for emotional reasons, try these three steps:

  • Step 1 – Check if you’re actually hungry. If you’re physically hungry, have something to eat. If you’re not hungry, move to step 2.
  • Step 2 – What am I feeling? Try to recognise and name the emotion you’re feeling. This isn’t always easy, but an emotion wheel can help as it breaks the sensations into eight categories: anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust. With your exam, you’d need to explore the emotions you were feeling afterwards. Was it disappointment that you found the exam hard? Disappointment relates back to sadness. However, if you were feeling annoyed that the exam was so hard, that relates back to the primary emotion of anger.
  • Step 3 – What do I need? Once you’ve identified the emotion, ask yourself: what should I do about it? Each of us would benefit from a personal toolbox of coping strategies for each type of emotion, as what we need to cope with sadness is quite different from coping with anger. For sadness, you might need a hug from a loved one or some self-soothing, whereas anger might be better resolved with deep-breathing techniques (or punching a pillow). Meditation can help with anxiety and helping others may deal with loneliness.

If you eat when bored, create a “bored list” of activities you could do and store it on your phone. It might include a book or podcast you want to check out, a new TV show to watch, a friend you’ve been meaning to see or a closet that needs a tidy. Having a list at your fingertips means you’re less likely to use food to cure boredom, and you’ll have something enjoyable or meaningful to do instead.

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.