It's 2pm. Emails are piling up. Phone is buzzing. Boss is on your case about something that doesn't even matter.
You step away from my desk just to breathe. You are craving chocolate even though I didn’t eat that long ago so I go to the vending machine, type in “A2” and that beautiful, shiny Milky Way wrapper hits the bottom shelf with a thud.
You reach in, rush to unwrap it, and melt into Chocolate and Caramel bliss.
You instantly feel better.
At some point, we have all been there.
This is called stress or emotional eating. Simply put, emotional eating is eating to fill an emotional void rather than a physical one. Most of the time, it is in response to stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed.
- Can you stop at 2 scoops of ice cream, or do you have to eat the entire pint?
- Can you have a handful of chips or do you need to eat the entire bag?
- When there is perfectly good food in the fridge, do you crave something specific that you must go out to get?
If so, you might be an emotional eater.
The complicated part of being a stress eater is you may not know you are doing it. Until you can identify whether you’re a stress eater or not, you can’t begin to change so let’s find out if you are emotional eater.
Below is a short quiz that will help you figure out if you are an emotional eater. For each question, choose either answer A or B. Keep track of your choices.
How fast does hunger hit you?
Like a hammer. One second you were fine, but now you have an instant, almost overwhelming desire to eat something … NOW!
Not too fast. The urge gradually crept up and I want to eat, but I don’t feel the need to eat right now, like in. this. very. moment.
What are you hungry for?
Something very specific that’s probably full of fat and sugar like pizza or a soda. You need it. Nothing else will satisfy your hunger.
Nothing in particular. A nice piece of fruit would be fine. Or hey, you wouldn’t mind the leftover cookies from the office luncheon earlier. Whatever’s on hand works.
How much do you eat?
I don’t realize how much I’ve eaten. I don’t mean to eat an entire bag of chips, but it just happens. I don’t realize how full I am until I stop eating.
I am pretty good at managing how much I eat. I stop eating when I start feeling full.
How do you feel after meals?
Tired and stuffed. I sometimes feel really sleepy after lunch and don’t get done as much after lunch as I do before.
Good to go. I can keep working or head to the gym. I have as much energy after lunch as I do before.
How do you feel after eating junkfood?
I regret it and feel guilty. I know I shouldn’t have ate it, but did it anyway.
Neither here nor there. I only feel guilty when I go overboard.
Now let's find out how you did. Each time you picked A, give yourself 1 point. Each time you picked B, give yourself 0 points.
Add up to get your total score.
Emotional Eater Status
You are not likely an emotional eater and you likely have a good relationship with food.
You might be somewhat of an emotional eater. Here and there, you may use food to cope with stress, but you typically don’t mindlessly eat.
You might be an emotional eater. You typically use food to cope with emotional stress which tends to lead you to overeat, feel guilt and shame, and have a poor relationship with food.
Regardless of how you scored, you can learn how to change your emotional eating habits and avoid using food to cope with the stress of work, children, and life.
When I was at my heaviest, I could sit down and eat a box of Cheez-Its in about 30 minutes while watching TV. Deep down, I knew I shouldn’t be eating that much, but I couldn’t stop.
These next three steps are how I cut this bad habit and can now can sit down with a box of Cheez-Its (I still love them) and not feel guilty, ashamed, or bloated.
Step 1: Identify Your Causes or Triggers
This is probably the hardest step because there can be so many triggers. A trigger can be an event, situation, or person that causes you to act a certain way. For me, it was work. Every time a client got upset or I had to have an unpleasant conversation with a colleague, I just wanted to sit on the couch and stuff myself with pizza, kettle chips, glazed doughnuts, or an egg roll.
Here are the 4 biggest triggers that have affected me and my clients the most:
- Work Stress: A list of deadlines and a boss who talks down to you is enough to make anyone’s stress meter go through the roof. This typically sends us to the vending machine to grab something to dull the anxiety, even if just for a minute.
- Relationship Stress: A fight or breakup can put our mind into overdrive. The uneasiness and negative thoughts we have when we fight with our significant other can drive us straight to the bottle or to the drive-thru.
- Social Pressure: Who wants to be the only one ordering a salad when everyone else is getting a burger? Who wants to be sipping club soda when everyone is getting beers? No one. And if we resist for one night, that angst can lead us to go overboard the next time we are out.
- Bad Childhood Habits: Were you rewarded for a good grade with ice cream? Or maybe when fell off your bike, you got chocolate to make you feel better. Believe it or not, as children, our brains built an association between certain feelings and certain foods. As a child this is totally normal. As an adult, this can be very harmful and cause weight gain.
Step 2: Substitute Food with Something Else
Once I identified my trigger, I had to break the behavior pattern. Otherwise, I would keep doing it again and keep feeling terrible about myself for never, ever losing weight.
You need an alternative action.
Actually, you need several because only having one will not be enough. That’s because different stresses cause different reactions. Some are easily managed and some are tougher.
Here are some alternative actions that really worked for me. I encourage you to start here, but feel free to develop your own alternatives that work for you.
- Going to the Gym or Going for a 10 minute Walk: If it was during the day, I would get up from my desk and go for a 10 minute walk. The combination of blood flow and my body physically moving helped kill some of the anxiety and need for food. In the evening, getting up and going to the gym instead of eating my feelings away gave me an adrenaline rush but also helped me cope with stress in a better way.
- Music or Internet Humor: Sometimes a 10 minute piano break did the trick. (I play piano). Sometimes I pumped some EDM (Electronic Dance Music) for 5 minutes. EDM always gets me pumped up and the little bit of adrenaline made the difference. Other times a good laugh on a Conan or Jimmy Fallon clip was a great break.
- Call/Text a Friend: A friend can make a world of difference. I have two people that I would literally text “I’m texting you right now so I don’t eat this entire bag of chips.” It’s simple. And yet, a word of encouragement from a buddy was better than getting sucked into an emotional eating tornado.
Step 3: “Take 5”
This is one of my favorite and most powerful tools that I’ve developed. Every time I crave food, I take 5 minutes to think. In those 5 little minutes, I can figure out if I’m really hungry or if I’m about to emotionally eat in response to stress. If after 5 minutes, I was still hungry, I would eat. If not, I would carry on with my day.
If 5 minutes is too long, start with one minute. From one minute, move to two minutes and so on and so forth. Even an extra 60 seconds can make a huge difference in checking in with yourself.
Binging to Balance
Going from binge eating foods to eating balanced will not happen on its own. After you identify your triggers and begin to learn to control your eating, the next step is a meal plan. A meal plan that is as flexible and dynamic as your life.
When I developed my meal plan, it took the guesswork out of eating and I had pre-specified times where I can indulge in some of the foods I really enjoy, multiple times per week. Having indulgences integrated didn’t make me feel like I had to “earn” my food or that the the food was “bad”. This was really important as I no longer needed Cheez -its to feel better.
The Most Important Part: Start
If you are an emotional eater, you know it can be extremely destructive to weight loss, energy, and the way you feel about yourself. Whether you’re slightly an emotional eater or you’re deep in the hole, the most important thing is to start identifying your triggers and change your behavior in turn.
In short, you must start to do something.
Addressing emotional eating doesn't mean that it will be fixed in a day, a week, or even a month. Just like it took months or years to develop this habit, fixing it will also take time.
And it won’t be a perfect process. You will relapse and have bad moments. That is totally OK. It is part of the process. The key is to become conscious of the triggers and then begin to take action. Your actions will change your thoughts. Your thoughts will change your beliefs. When your beliefs change, you will be an unstoppable force of balance and positivity.
Get Started. Get Better.
If you are interested in controlling your eating, sign up for Strengthlete Nutribuild -- the process of how I stopped my stress eating and lost 40 pounds. The journey is tough and you don’t have to do it alone. Join me and the other Nutribuilders who have shed both emotional baggage and physical weight.
Start with my workshop below.