Emotional Eating: How to Find Balance and Overcome Binge Eating

  • January 16, 2023
  • Lerato Mokonyane
  • 8 min read

Dear foodies,

If you’re worried about whether you’re eating enough, how often you’re eating when you’re not hungry, or if you are concerned that food has become your primary tool for coping with emotions, contact Eating Disorders South Africa or RecoverySpace.org.

One minute you’re in bed, the next you’re in the kitchen looking for a snack when you realize you’re not even hungry.

It’s important to appreciate your food. Food can make us feel good and eating a fast snack is often beneficial for our mood, work productivity, and interpersonal relationships — even when we aren’t hungry.

In an ideal world, you’d only eat when your body requires calories for energy, but that’s not the case. We frequently eat for reasons unrelated to meeting our physiological demands, e.g., in response to emotions or out of habit.

DISCLAIMER:

The content on the site is for informational purposes only, and doesn’t substitute professional medical advice. If you think that you are struggling with a medical disorder, please reach out to a professional to confirm your diagnosis.

How does an eating disorder affect your mental health?

A psychological condition known as an ‘eating disorder’ manifests as an abnormal preoccupation with food, activity, weight, and body image. The disruption to regular life caused by someone’s obsession with these issues can harm their overall health.

Eating disorders have little to do with food or the desire to look a particular way, and more to do with mental health.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are among some of the most common eating disorders today.

To keep an eating disorder going, people often hide episodes of binging or vomiting in the following ways:

  1. Dress in layers to hide weight changes
  2. Steal or hoard food
  3. Use laxatives to control weight
  4. Avoid places or events with food
  5. Join multiple gyms to avoid comments about how much time they spend there

These unusual actions make it hard to live a normal life.

What is binge eating?

Binge eating involves consuming large quantities of food quickly, even when not hungry, and to the point of being uncomfortable. Almost everyone overeats once in a while, but it can also become a disorder.

On top of this, people with this condition also feel out of control when they eat and feel ashamed or guilty about it.

Food addiction, which is not a recognized mental illness, is occasionally used as a synonym for binge eating disorder. It’s mistakenly believed that binge eating disorder is a less severe condition than anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, even though it can also be extremely severe, crippling, and even fatal.

Common signs of binge eating: 

  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Excessive food  consumption
  • Feeling shame and guilt about how much or what you’re eating
  • Eating rapidly
Starving yourself in the name of weight loss isn’t healthy or sustainable. While it may be tempting to deprive yourself of food, your body will suffer

What is food addiction? 

Some people find it difficult to avoid particular things due to the impact they have on the brain.

When a person has a food addiction, they are unable to manage their eating behavior and end up spending too much time thinking about food, overeating, or worrying about the emotional consequences of compulsive overeating.

Food intolerance can also develop in those who show signs of food addiction. Blood tests are not currently available to identify food addiction — similar to other addictions, most of the signs are behavioral. 

Common signs of food addiction:

  • Frequent food cravings despite feeling full
  • Constantly eating to the point of feeling excessively stuffed
  • Feeling guilt, shame, or disgust after eating particular foods — but still eating them again soon after
  • Making excuses about eating
  • Repeatedly attempting to stop eating certain foods
Those struggling with an eating disorder may have some, but not all, of the following physical signs and symptoms: Fluctuations in weight, stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.) and more

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating happens when you eat to cope with your emotions rather than to satisfy your hunger. It typically worsens your emotional problems rather than resolving them. The initial emotional problem still exists afterward, and you additionally feel bad for overindulging.

It’s not always a bad thing to use food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate. However, if eating is your main coping strategy — and your first reaction is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re anxious, unhappy, angry, lonely, tired, or bored — you become trapped in a negative cycle where the core issue is never addressed.

Finding your unique triggers is the first step to stopping emotional eating. What circumstances, locations, or emotions cause you to turn to food for comfort? The majority of emotional eating is related to negative emotions.

Consider your early memories of eating. Did your parents treat you to ice cream for good behavior, or give you sweets when you were depressed? These behaviors frequently persist throughout adulthood and form habits.

Common signs of emotional eating:

  • When you’re under stress, you eat. When you’re busy (like working, studying, or taking tests), you unconsciously seek food. Though it can sometimes occur during the day and in front of people, it tends to happen more frequently when you’re up late and alone.
  • You seek food out of habit anytime you feel something.
  • You lack discipline and find it difficult to stop eating, even when you’re not hungry.
  • Any happiness you experience when eating is usually temporary, and you go back again to eating to rekindle that feeling.
People with disordered eating patterns have severe, persistent, and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors about food. As a result, they might eat way too little or way too much

How to improve your eating habits using the 3 Rs

Old habits hold immense power over you and changing them takes dedication, patience, and time.

You can avoid life-threatening health issues like diabetes and obesity by forming new, healthier behaviours. You can also manage your weight and gain more energy by adopting new habits like frequent exercise and better eating. 

If you continue with these adjustments over time, they start to feel like a natural part of your daily life. Here are my 3 Rs to improving your eating habits:

#1 Reflect on your bad habits

Keep a food and beverage journal on hand for a few days. Use it to make a list of your dietary and drinking choices, and note the time of day you consumed the food or beverage.

You can discover your habits by doing this. Track your feelings when you decide to eat, particularly if you aren’t hungry. Keep an eye out for common behaviours like eating too quickly or not chewing your food.

#2 Replace bad habits with good ones

You may find you eat too quickly while you’re dining alone or only consume junk food when in social settings. Make a change by agreeing to have a co-worker over for lunch or inviting a family member over for supper once a week.

#3 Reinforce positive habits

It takes time for habits to form. Creating a scorecard is a simple yet powerful technique to reinforce good habits, as you’re instantly reminded you’re on track via a printed card. Keeping a score provides tangible proof that you’re progressing.

Set modest, helpful goals that’ll bring you genuine joy. Rewarding yourself with junk food for going to the gym is counterproductive if your goal is to become healthier. 

Seeking treatment for eating disorders 

Many factors can cause an eating disorder to develop, these include:

  • Struggling with undiagnosed anxiety, depression, or PTSD 
  • Restrictive diet plans 
  • Weight or appearance-based bullying
  • Family history 

It’s important to know the signs of an eating disorder and the different types so you can get help early.

Eating disorders are treated with therapy, nutrition education, and medicine. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to it. No timeframe is set for treating an eating disorder, and recovery is personal and may take months or years.

If you’re worried about an eating disorder, see a doctor. They’ll listen to your concerns and help you determine if you have an eating disorder and which one. Your history, symptoms, medical tests, and past treatment will be reviewed by a psychiatrist.

Love and light,

Chef Lee

— Thank you for reading Food For Thought — a newsletter where I explore food and mental health.

If this issue resonated with you, feel free to share it with someone who’d find it useful. 

I run a creative food agency and host regular cooking classes. Check out my website for more or email me for help with your next event.

Special thanks to Dr. Shehu for helping with editing this piece. He offers content marketing and business coaching for entrepreneurs — book a coaching session with him to grow your business.

See you again next week. x

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Chef Lerato Mokonyane has worked for some of South Africa's best-known brands such as McCain, Topo Chico, Eskort, and Sutherland Wines. She's passionate about recipe development, food photography, and everyday nutrition.

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