There is a lot of talk about emotional eating and binge-eating in the media in midst of the global pandemic when people are more stressed than ever before, and measures are having detrimental effects on our mental health. This post is for you to get some evidence-based information about what emotional eating is, what binge eating includes and to understand what are the possible ways we can enjoy intuitive and mindful eating instead.
Binge-eating and emotional eating can be very interrelated and that is why I will talk about both of them in this post. Most factors, helping strategies and other information is applicable to problems with both, so this post can be a helpful tool for anyone battling with either one or both of those eating patterns.
It is also important to note that sometimes emotional eating is normal but it can become a serious problem when food is the only strategy we use to cope with our negative emotions.
It is very common to hear people say they binged when, in fact, they have not because the word “binge” has become very widely used. People use it even when eating just a tad more than regularly or for eating after being very hungry. Therefore, it is vital to define what binge eating actually is.
Clinically speaking, you have engaged in binge eating if you meet three out of the five following criteria:
Eating more quickly than usual
Eating to the point of uncomfortable fullness
Eating a large amount when not physically hungry
Eating alone due to embarrassment or shame experienced when eating
Feeling depressed or guilty after eating
Emotional eating is coping mechanism that we use to cope with negative feelings such as stress, anxiety, boredom or hurt. In order to manage these uncomfortable emotions, we turn to food which may leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.
This behavior could damage our relationship with food as it can contribute to developing disordered eating habits. Therefore, in case you notice that you use emotional eating as a coping mechanism and especially if this puts you to distress, you should try to identify triggers and challenge your negative thoughts.
First, it is important to identify some of the most prevalent risk factors that make you vulnerable for binge-eating and emotional eating. One of the most prevalent factors that in more cases than not lead to binges is strict rules of eating and restriction. Restriction can take various forms, it can come as restricting calorie intake and eating only calorie-low foods or eating super small portions of food, or it can come in a way of restricting some food groups, for example carbohydrates or sweets.
The second risk factor are body image issues. If you are not comfortable or satisfied with your body, are often overly self-conscious, this can lead to unhealthy relationship with food, which is often perceived as directly linked to body shape.
Mood issues and fluctuations can also contribute to unhealthy eating habits especially if you are prone to feeling very strong emotions that completely overwhelm you. In such situations, food becomes a coping strategy for dealing with intense negative emotions. However, in such circumstances, it is best to find help in talking to a family member or a friend about it. Social support can be very important when battling with disordered eating.
The last risk factor that I would like to mention are feelings during and after binges. An individual that is using food as a coping strategy might feel relieved when eating but is likely to feel ashamed and guilty afterward. If you recognize those emotions in yourself when you eat, this could be cause for alarm.
Identify your emotions
Think about the emotions and situations that lead to unhealthy eating. What are the specific emotions you are trying to deal with when using food as a coping mechanism? You can write them down in a diary. Write down the situation, emotions, overall mood, what food have you binged on and how you felt after the binge. This will help you identify the exact emotions and situations in which you engage in binge eating so you can learn more about your problem. Using the diary strategy, you can become a mindful eater, which has been shown to reduce binge eating episodes and help with healthy eating.
Once you have identified the negative emotions that make you want to engage in binges, try to think about the possible ways to cope with the feelings. It can be anything like going for a walk, drawing, painting your nails, doing sports, journaling, taking a bath or reading a book. Make a list of all the things that make you feel better so that you can look at the list once you find yourself in uncomfortable or difficult situations and use these activities to cope with negative feelings.
Relationship with food
Most dieting and restriction results in a poor or difficult relationship with food, which further exacerbates our mental health. Ask yourself if you are afraid of any foods or food groups. For instance, do you feel uncomfortable eating chocolate, pasta or bread? These are some examples of the most common foods that someone with an unhealthy relationship with food will want to avoid.
You should also be careful about the language that you use when you talk or think about food. There is no such thing as good and bad food.
You can try thinking of different foods and giving it green, orange and red lights as you see and judge it. Red lights are for food that you want to avoid under all circumstances, orange is for food that is ok in small quantities whereas green is food what you perceive as healthy food. Then you can start at adding some orange foods to your menu. Try to monitor you thoughts and feelings when you eat it and afterwards. Once you make peace and normalize eating “orange” foods you can proceed to foods labeled red. Lastly, you try to include the? food you are most afraid of in a healthy way and in moderate amounts to your diet.
You can do the same thing by rating foods on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the food you are most afraid of. Then you start at the bottom and slowly move up to the most frightening foods. By including them in your diet, you will realize that food is only food – we eat it when we are hungry to give us energy. When this happens, there will hopefully be a shift in your relationship with food and you will become more comfortable around food and at meal times.
To read more about how to develop and maintain a positive relationship with food click here.
Emotional eating in the COVID-19 pandemic
The researchers have identified several triggers that may prompt emotional eating. They can be easily remembered by the acronym BLAST that stands for Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stressed and Tired. If in any of these moods, we are more likely to overeat or engage in emotional eating.
Sadly, the currently raging pandemic is not very helpful in managing emotional eating. Moreover, it can be very challenging to many of us. We often feel lonely when all kinds of social gatherings are forbidden, stressed when we think of the strict measures, and tired from the situation.
With no apparent ritual, we may more quickly become bored or binge eating can even become our new ritual. If this happens, it is important to engage in different rituals. Plan your days and plan your meals. Think about possible constructive coping strategies such as seeking help and support from others, switching perspectives, planning and strategizing.
Please, know that you are not alone. The current conditions are tough on most of us, and too many turn to unhealthy eating in order to deal with the stressful and tiring situation. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and increase anxiety and stress. All this can ultimately lead to disordered eating patterns.
Binge eating and emotional eating are often associated with several health risk, one of the most prevalent being mental health issues. Individuals who engage in binge eating or emotional eating are more prone to eating disorders, depression and anxiety. They often have sleep difficulties and elevated stress levels. Weight cycling, such as losing and gaining weight can lead to other health conditions, for instance, stroke and heart diseases.
While it is important to be aware of the implications of binge eating, I want to stress that disordered eating is NOT your fault. Try to focus on self-care and getting better instead of stressing over associated health risks.
Be careful when looking for information on self-help online. There is a ton of unhealthy diets and other methods that will not only not help you but can also make your problems worse! That’s why I suggest you always check from whom the information is coming from. Look for certified nutritionists, dieticians and mental health professionals.
Here are some simple self-help techniques that you could try to see if they help you to deal with unpleasant emotions. However, everybody is different so note that these might not work for you whereas they might work perfectly for others.
Especially if the main reason for emotional eating and/or binges is stress, meditation can be really helpful. Start with some short meditation when you wake up or before you go to sleep.
If you have never meditated before, it is important for you to realize that meditation is a skill and you will get better with practice. This means that even if you feel you’re not doing good at the beginning, you will improve as you meditate more.
Meditation can be an important part of the recovery strategy with binge eating and emotional eating. It can help you stay present and acknowledge your feelings and bodily sensations.
Practice self-compassion. Try to be grateful for each and every improvement and learn that progress is slow and takes time. Just take it step by step.
Forgive yourself if you go back to the old habits for a day and try again the next day. One bad day doesn’t mean you gave up, it was only a bad day.
Connect with your family and friends
Close social ties are important when dealing with disordered eating. Support from your family and friends while you deal with your problems is ideal.
Telling your significant others about your struggles is an important step to recovery. It means you have acknowledged your problem and are ready to start working on it.
Research shows that if we eat in the company of others we are less likely to overeat or binge eat, which can also be a useful technique when you decide to break the cycle of unhealthy eating.
Consult with your GP
Talk to your GP about the problems you have been experiencing as they can be the first step on the way to help. They can advise you which specialist to see and give you some basic information until then.
Some GPs also prescribe or suggest self-care books that include elements from cognitive-behavioral therapy. The books usually give you a set program on which you can work by yourself. They include different activities, reflections, and mindfulness practice that lead to self-discovery of healthy eating.
Seek professional help
Disordered eating can be quite persistent even though self-help is beneficial for some. That’s why I suggest you think about seeking professional help. You can ask your GP to recommend a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or a psychotherapist.
It is not unusual for eating disorders to go from one eating disorder to another. And this is exactly why you should be very careful when you choose your recovery path. Binge eating or emotional eating can quickly turn into bulimia or other unidentified eating disorders. That’s why consulting a professional will be the most beneficial for you.
The sooner you ask for help, the easier your recovery will be. Even if you’re not completely sure you have problems with eating, pay a visit to your GP and find out.
Please remember that you are not alone. There are many others with similar problems out there and many have benefited from professional help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it yourself.
I hope you enjoyed my blog post and learned something new. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below and I will try to answer them to my best knowledge. Below, I have referenced a few useful pages, scientific articles, and podcasts for you to check out if you are interested to learn more about disordered eating.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Glisenti, K., Strodl, E., & King, R. (2018). Emotion-focused therapy for binge-eating disorder: A review of six cases. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 25(6), 842–855.
Katterman, S. N., Kleinman, B. M., Hood, M. M., Nackers, L. M., & Corsica, J. A. (2014). Minfulness meditation as intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviors, 15(2), 197–204.
Kittel, R., Brauhardt, A. & Hilbert, A. (2015). Cognitive and emotional functioning in binge-eating disorder: A systematic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 48(6), 535–554.
Lambert, R. (Host). (2020, December 7). Gain control of emotional eating [Audio podcast]. Rhitrition. https://rhitrition.com/podcast/
Lambert, R. (Host). (2020, July 20). Stop binge eating for good [Audio podcast]. Rhitrition. https://rhitrition.com/podcast/
Velazquez Lopez, H. J., Vazquez Arevalo, R., & Mancilla Diaz, J. M. (2018). Binge eating disorder in men: A review of the relevant variables in the literature. Salud Mental, 41(2), 91–100.