7 Signs of Emotional Overeating
April 1st marks the beginning of Emotional Overeating Awareness Month, giving us an excellent opportunity to explore our relationship to food and the emotions that tend to belie our eating habits.
In the clinical sphere, emotional overeating is defined as a “maladaptive coping strategy” involving an increase in food intake in response to negative emotions. In other words, emotional overeating is a behavior people resort to as a way of avoiding or alleviating states of distress.
Overeating is not uncommon: a Pew survey finds that 6 in 10 Americans say they eat more than they feel they should either often (17%) or sometimes (42%), but it’s important to be aware of your reasons for overeating, because if they are regularly related to stress, sadness, or other troubled emotional states, you could be experiencing a disordered pattern, using food to deal with psychological stressors, and putting yourself at risk of developing binge-eating disorder, from which 2.8% of Americans currently suffer.
The impulse to soothe yourself when you run into stressful or emotionally difficult moments is a good one, but its extremely important to make sure you aren’t using methods of self-soothing that harm you, adding to or worsening preexisting struggles in your life.
In the interest of spreading improved self-awareness and self-care surrounding food this month, I’ve provided a few questions below to help you check in with yourself about your eating habits, and piece apart whether you may be using excess food to face emotional challenges. As you answer these questions for yourself, try to be honest with yourself while withholding judgment.
Does stress lead you to eat more?
Do you find that when you’re anxious or under lots of pressure, you need to eat more in order to calm down? This is a sign that you could be using food as a way of tolerating negative feelings.
Do you eat when you’re not hungry or already full?
Eating without an appetite could be a sign that consuming food has become a conditioned or mindless response to difficult feelings or conditions in your life. When you eat, is food what you really want, or is it acting as a placeholder for a different kind of need?
Do you eat to reward yourself?
Of course, it’s ok to reward yourself with a treat as a fun exception to your usual eating habits, or for a special occasion, but it’s another thing to feel you’re are only allowed to eat after achieving something specific in your daily or weekly routine. Feeling like you only deserve to eat at certain times can be part of a self-critical pattern that distances you from listening and responding to your needs.
Do you only eat certain foods alone?
Are there some foods you only feel secure eating when no one’s looking? Emotional overeating is often linked to feelings of shame that can lead you to hide from others and from yourself out of embarrassment about what or how much you are eating.
Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
Are you often eating not only past the point of needing more, but also of wanting more? If you’re continuing to eat beyond feeling full and into feeling uncomfortable or sick, this is a real sign that food is playing a role for you other than satisfying hunger.
Do you depend on food to feel safe?
Do you feel anxious when you don’t have certain kinds of food or extra food at your disposal? This is a sign you may be depending on food for a sense of comfort you feel you can’t otherwise access. What else could you do to achieve the same sense of comfort and tranquility?
Do you feel out of control around food?
Feeling powerless about what or how much you eat or like you can’t stop when it comes to certain foods or situations is a signal that you may be experiencing a sense of powerlessness or lack of control surrounding other issues. Check in with yourself about the foods and circumstances that may trigger you to overeat.
If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of these questions, then you may be struggling with habits of emotional overeating. The good news is that if you think that you are an emotional overeater, there are a variety of treatments available, many that you can administer to yourself. Many of us have resorted to various forms of self-medication as an attempt at tolerating or solving life problems. The most important thing to remember if emotional overeating is a struggle for you is to forgive yourself. Our instinct to care for ourselves can sometimes get out of hand, but it’s worth celebrating the fact that there are many growthful solutions to this that will allow you to serve your needs without contributing to your struggles.
For further inspiration on how to curb patterns related to overeating, check out 7 Ways to Reduce Sugar Cravings.