Dieters are at a particularly high risk for emotional eating: “The more you deprive yourself, the more likely you are to overeat,” Shepphird says. If you place certain foods on the “do not eat” list, chances are you’ll rebel and reach for the forbidden items when things get tough, especially because those same forbidden foods (desserts and carbs) provide quick comfort. “Foods high in carbs increase a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is one of the main pleasure hormones in our brain,” she says. Think: That instant mmm-ahhh feeling.
Here Shepphird identifies three common situations when we turn to (or away from) food. Plus, her tips for dealing with each emotional eating situation in a more constructive way.
You eat when you have too much work.
You just ate lunch, yet you’re noshing on trail mix as your deadline approaches. “Eating postpones the thing causing you stress,” Shepphird says. It’s a delay tactic that puts off having to buckle down and work. Plus, when your to-do list is a mile long, finding “me time” likely isn’t at the top, so we tend to turn to food as a quick, convenient source of pleasure. “If you’re not making time to do things that help you relax or feel good, you might turn to something that’s quick and convenient in order to fill the need,” she adds.
What to do: In the end, turning to food doesn’t help the situation since the work still needs to be done. Instead, stop and take five deep cleansing breaths, Shepphird says. The increased mindfulness sounds too simple to be true, but it can be a powerful way to help you focus on the moment and veer away from emotional eating. Chances are, after a few deep exhales you’ll find yourself ready to tackle the project head on, with no thought to procrastinate.
You eat when you’re having relationship problems.
Your boyfriend just broke up with you. You’re fighting with your sister again. Whatever it is, you’ve decided it’s far easier to eat than to address the issue. “If you’re in that kind of situation and you get yourself a big bowl of ice cream, then you focus on the ice cream instead of your feelings,” she says. You’re likely using the ice cream to distract yourself from having to confront the problem.
What to do: Eventually, the emotions are going to catch up with you, Shepphird warns. “You need to address them.” So, take matters into your owns hands. Step away from the mint chocolate chip and turn to a journal or call a friend to tackle the issue proactively.
You don’t eat when you’re stressed.
While some people do lose their appetite when they’re stressed, others can use not eating as a distraction. “When you focus on not eating, you’re still thinking about food,” Shepphird says. Devoting energy to food restriction means you’re devoting less energy to thinking about that bad breakup or not-so-great work presentation.
What do to: If you’re simply not hungry, it might just be your body’s reaction to stress. But if you’re actively trying to avoid food when you’re stressed, the problem could be more psychological. Instead of putting foods in a “good” and “bad” box, Shepphird says to allow for a daily cheat. “Allow yourself a little of what you want when you want it,” she says. “Don’t make food the enemy.”