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I Can’t Stop Eating: What Causes Emotional Eating and How to Overcome It

Dr. Lalitaa Suglani

Dr. Lalitaa Suglani

Monday, 28th January 2019

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What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with uncomfortable feelings rather than to satisfy hunger. It is a conditioning or learnt behaviour that people develop in order to cope with distressing emotions. Everyday life events can trigger this behaviour, such as feeling let down, not feel loved, not being happy etc.

Stress and emotional eating: what’s the relationship?

Often when people feel stressed they find it difficult to embrace this emotion, so they develop a coping strategy which is to turn to food.

How does food help?

It not only physically distracts you but your body is also distracted whilst digesting this food. This means that the underlying stress is still there, but you’ve found a way to avoid it - until it comes up again, that is.

Often it is fear that stops us embracing stress and understanding what it is communicating to us. It can also be not having the right tools to be able to manage the stress. It's important to remember that everyone is different, and everyone’s conditioning is different. This means that we have all had different experiences.

One tip is the next time you are feeling stress, take a pen and paper and write down what's making you feel stressed. Acknowledging what is the underlying cause of your stress is one of the first steps to be able to manage and change the emotion.

Another tip: Have a list of things ready on the wall, or on your phone of what you can do to help you calm down when you are stressed. Imagine it like a kettle, the kettle has boiled, but it does not stay boiled, just like your stress.... It will eventually wind down. Having a list such as yoga, stress ball, journal, play a game, 5 deep breaths can help you manage the stress when you are at the peak.

Therapy for emotional eating

If someone is struggling with emotional eating, it's important to start by literally drawing out a timeline to discover when the emotional eating started. The chances are that the individual hadn't been given the opportunity to communicate and develop their emotions growing up and turned to food as a way to cope.

It can be the simplest thing, like if you have done all your homework and are rewarded with chocolate. Not everyone correlates ‘hard work’ with the need for a ‘reward’, but some people do and if they have had a hard day, they may say to themselves “I deserve chocolate”. This rule or conditioning has been developed from your inner child, and growing up you develop a blueprint for how to deal with your emotions. Therapy can help you to unpick this.

Again, everyone’s relationship with food is different. It all comes from how we may have perceived certain behaviors from a young age.

Once you've completed the timeline, which is all about awareness and making you more conscious of your relationship to food, it's now time to start listening to your thoughts. I never ask my clients to limit their food, as you are taking away their ability to cope. It's for each individual to understand and then replace their strategy with something that they feel works for them.

Once you start to listen and acknowledge your thoughts, this is where the real change and empowerment comes in. It is very useful to do this with a professional and not with friends or by yourself, as sometimes you can be so in tune with your reality it's difficult to see anything else.

One thing I have to say is to always be kind to yourself and learn from times you are emotional eating. Too many times clients will start the process of understanding emotional eating, and they will come to their next session and be angry with themselves. “I cannot believe I did it again, I feel so angry, so bad”.

Remember: change is a process and it's not going to happen over night, so if you do emotionally eat, embrace it, and understand the lesson and what happened. This is where the real awareness and change begins.

You can book a session with Lalitaa by clicking on her bio below.

Dr. Lalitaa Suglani

Dr. Lalitaa Suglani

Lalitaa is a leading executive coach & psychologist with a focus on helping clients enact change in their lives. Lalitaa has helped thousands of clients excel in their professional and personal lives.

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