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Harvard Commentaries
35320
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Managing Emotional Eating


January 16, 2013

By Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Have you ever asked yourself "Why do I want to eat right now?" Much too often people eat for reasons other than satisfying hunger — they eat when they are depressed, bored, angry, anxious, lonesome, stressed, tired, overwhelmed or powerless. This unhealthy habit is called emotional eating, and it results in weight gain and weight-related health conditions.

Emotional eating is instant gratification for a negative feeling. It's easy and feels good right away, but is usually a Band-Aid for underlying problems. The negative feelings often return and can lead to more emotional eating. As the cycle churns on, weight gain increases.

This type of eating is a negative behavior, something that gives immediate satisfaction but may be harmful to your health. A healthier alternative to negative emotions would be a positive response, like meditating or walking when stressed. The gratification may not be instantaneous, but it certainly is more beneficial to your health.

Emotional eating may start early in life as a reaction to perceived unhappiness or repetitive stress within the family. Therefore, changing this behavior is not as easy as saying "I'm going to stop my emotional eating today!" To reduce emotional eating, you must repeatedly catch yourself in the act and teach yourself to avoid the situation in the future.

An effective process to manage emotional eating is the four-step paradigm outlined in The Wellness Book by Herbert Benson, M.D. and Eileen M. Stuart, R.N., C., M.S. The paradigm is used for stress reduction but is also very effective at changing eating behaviors. The four-steps are to Stop, Breathe, Reflect and Choose.

Stop
This step breaks the cycle of automatically eating when a certain feeling arises, and it needs to occur before the eating starts. It is the most important step because if it never occurs, then emotional eating can continue without hindrance.

Breathe
This step helps to relax the individual, slow down the pace of activity and clear his or her head.

Reflect
This step is known as "Think before you eat." The best question to ask at this time is "Why do I want to eat right now?" The answer could be physical hunger, celebration, or any of the negative emotions that were listed earlier. Another question that some find effective is, "If I eat this food now, is it worth it?" These questions bring mindfulness and meaning to eating rather than just eating on impulse and based on urges. Thinking about these questions doesn't guarantee the eating won't happen; it just gives the person a chance to make a better decision. Sometimes the person may still decide to eat, but it's important not to reinforce the urge by eating right away.

Choose
The options are numerous and can include:

  1. Eat the food anyway because it’s in moderation.
  2. Choose a healthier food.
  3. Eat a smaller amount of the high-calorie food and do so slowly and mindfully. Mindful eating can be achieved if you eat slowly while sitting at a table without other activities occurring. This can be beneficial for the following reasons:
    • Slows eating pace
    • Increases eating enjoyment because you can appreciate tastes and textures
    • Allows the stomach to signal the brain that it’s full, if you take at least 20 minutes to eat a meal
    • May improve digestion if you chew more
    • Allows you to maximize enjoyment of a small amount of high-calorie foods
  4. Choose an alternative activity to eating that distracts the mind from food urges or enhances the mood. These could include any of the following ideas:
    • Exercise or take a stroll.
    • Engage in relaxation, yoga or prayer.
    • Listen to or play music.
    • Take a bath or shower, or get a massage.
    • Engage in social support or social activities.
    • Work or play on the computer.
    • Do cleaning or simple chores.
    • Go shopping (but not for food).

Many people don't limit eating to when they are hungry. But if you use this four-step process before choosing snacks, desserts or second helpings, you'll be one of the many who have a new tool to limit emotional eating.

Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N., is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.

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