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  • Writer's pictureDena Lampert

Overcoming Emotional Eating and Negative Body Image

Emotional eating is defined as resorting to food to alleviate or suppress negative feelings such as stress, sadness, loneliness, and even boredom. These feelings can often create emotional emptiness and so-called comfort foods offer a fabricated sense of fullness and satisfaction that lasts for a few short minutes before regret kicks in.

Emotional eating is a short-term solution that can result in a long-term habit. Even if it only happened once, your brain can remember the sequence of triggers (negative emotion), actions (eating), and rewards (temporary comfort). And before you know it, next time you’re feeling low, you’ll find yourself rooting in the freezer for ice cream or trying to find those cookies you bought the other day.

A negative body image can evoke all sorts of emotions and has been linked to emotional eating. If you tend to eat away your emotions, you might find yourself in a never-ending circle of yo-yo dieting which is not only ineffective (95% of people regain the weight they lost from dieting) but it can also disrupt your hormones and metabolism.

In today's post, we're sharing tips to help you cope with emotional eating and how to make peace with your body, starting with embracing the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach.

How the Health at Every Size Approach Helps You Break the Vicious Circle of Emotional Eating

Having a healthy and balanced relationship with food starts with having a positive body image. The HAES model strives to promote exactly that by shifting the focus from dieting for weight loss to dieting for well-being.

More specifically, the mission of HAES is to put an end to fat-shaming and the assumption that a person’s weight is indicative of their health status. Good health is a privilege for people of all sizes. To that end, HAES encourages eating according to your individual nutritional needs following cues for hunger and satiation instead of a strict, predetermined diet plan. And when it comes to physical activities, you should choose those that best fit your abilities and interests. Exercise should be a pleasurable activity, not a punishment or obligation.

6 Tips to Overcome Emotional Eating

Distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger is the first step to preventing emotional eating. Physical hunger comes on slowly and makes you want to eat all different kinds of food. Emotional hunger is a different story. It comes out of the blue and seems to live in your head rather than your stomach. It’s not hunger per se, but a craving for a specific food (usually junk food!). It almost feels like you have to eat that food or else the thought of it won’t ever go away. And you know that after you’re done eating (until you’re uncomfortably full), you’ll regret it. Once you’re able to distinguish between physical hunger, and emotional eating, you can start to do something about it.

1. Reprogram your brain

Have you seen a child crying hysterically over a cookie they can’t have, and how their parent often distracts them with a toy? Well, anything can replace the “toy.” Maybe call a friend to talk about what’s bothering you, make plans for the night, get some exercise, or relax with a good book. Your goal is to reprogram your brain with a different trigger-action-award sequence that doesn’t involve food.

2. Get active

Exercise has been proven time and time again to reduce stress and improve mood; the two most common triggers for emotional eating. It also alleviates boredom and loneliness, and helps you decompress your anger. When it comes to improving your body image, it works wonders. Not just because of the tangible results like increased stamina and a stronger body – it also boosts your confidence and vitality.

3. Keep a food diary

A food diary helps you spot patterns between how you’re feeling and your food choices. Note down everything you eat and how you were feeling at that moment, including whether you were actually hungry or not. You might be surprised to find that often unhealthy meals go hand in hand with certain emotions.

4. Follow a balanced diet

Following a highly restrictive nutrition plan that doesn’t allow for a little “cheating” is not only dangerous to begin with, but it also will most certainly backfire and lead to a binge. A balanced diet will keep you full and provide your body with all the nutrition it needs.

5. Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating is the practice of being aware of physical and emotional sensations while eating, which ultimately reconnects you with your internal cues for hunger and satiety. You can start simply by eliminating distractions while you’re eating, chewing slowly to give your body the chance to savor your food, and stopping when you’re full. Remember, this is a practice and will take time for it to feel natural.

6. See a therapist

Having a negative body image and being trapped in a circle of overeating and dieting might escalate into an eating disorder. If you feel like the situation is getting out of control, consult a therapist to help you work through it.

In this day and age, you’d expect people to know better and for body shaming to no longer be an issue. Still, it happens. It’s up to you to realize that the number on the scale is not the definition of a person or what they can contribute to this world. Your body is unique and beautiful, regardless of size, and you have to treat it with respect. Like Jim Rohn famously said,

“take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”


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