Emotional eating (also known as stress or comfort eating) is when food is used as a coping mechanism to manage emotions, rather than to satisfy hunger. People at one time or another will use food as a reward or to self sooth during times of stress, but problems arise when this becomes an entrenched pattern, an automatic reaction in response to feelings of anxiety, upset, loneliness, anger, fatigue or boredom.
While emotional eating does have a short term pay off, it rarely helps in the long term. It does not address underlying issues, often leads to intense feelings of frustration, guilt and feeling out of control, and can also contribute to additional health problems.
There are a range of unhealthy behaviours that people use to cope with emotions, including smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, taking prescribed or illicit drugs, and comfort eating. Reliance on any of these can reduce our ability and confidence to cope and lead to problems with addiction. It is interesting to note that many specialists in the field are calling for the term addiction to be replaced with “ritualised compulsive comfort-seeking” as they feel it better describes the behaviour and because it so often results from the experience of childhood adversity.
A sensory explanation to emotional eating
Research shows that sensory input can be a powerful mechanism to help a person positively change how they feel. Eating and drinking is an activity that incorporates a variety of sensory input including taste and smell, touch (from the food and drink being held in the mouth, temperature, and the mechanics of licking, sucking and sipping) and proprioception (bodily awareness gained through mouth movements such as chewing and swallowing). This input is registered by the brain and facilitates increased feelings of calm, grounding, focus and attention.
The sensory aspects of eating and drinking (the smell of hot chips, the taste of chocolate milk, the chewing and swallowing of biscuits) may provide people with the neurological input needed to help shift how they feel. While the goal of changing negative feelings is a good one, some strategies used to achieve this (such as over-eating) may result in negative outcomes. Different sensory strategies could therefore be adopted to provide the desired sensory input, without the negative effects of emotional eating on health and well-being.
A sensory solution to emotional eating
When adopting a sensory approach to emotional eating, consider the following:
1. Do you recognise certain triggers to your emotional eating? Are there particular emotions, situations, times of the day or pressures that make you more vulnerable to reaching for food to cope? For example, between meetings at work, when you feel alone, or at night when feeling tired. These are the times where conscious application of replacement sensory strategies will be very important.
2. Are there particular foods you tend to reach for? For example, do you crave specific tastes like sweet (chocolate, cake or ice-cream) or salty foods (chips, spring rolls, pizza). Do you prefer certain textures (crunchy, chewy, or velvety smooth?). Being aware of preferred sensory input can assist with finding different effective options.
3. Identify alternative strategies to use instead of the usual food choices that provide oral sensory input you may be seeking, without the calories. For example:
· sugar free chewing gum or sugar free lollies instead of mint chocolate biscuits
· home popped corn instead of crisps
· flavoured teas (mint, chai, lemon) instead of iced coffee or milk shakes
· Mineral water with cut up fruit instead of soft drinks or jelly lollies
· crunching vegetable sticks or ice cubes
· sucking ice cold water through a straw or sports bottle
· Cleaning teeth with peppermint toothpaste
4. Try using replacement sensory input that does not involve food/ eating:
· Body movement (jump up & down on the spot, go for a walk, stretch your muscles, dance to music, swim, lift weights, skipping rope)
· Fidget with something (stress ball, rubix cube, theraputty, a bag of marbles, rub hand cream into your hands, art or drawing/doodling)
· Strong &/or preferred aromas (coffee, perfume, citrus, lavender)
· Touch input (cold washer over eyes, deep heat or eucalyptus rub, warm shower or bath, put something heavy in your lap)
5. Identify key trigger times/scenarios when you are more vulnerable to emotionally eat, and actively replace that behaviour with a new one involving a sensory activity. For example:
· In-between work meetings, take 2 minutes to go to the bathroom and clean your teeth, make a fruit tea, go for a walk around the office and chat to a colleague, do some stretching exercises.
· Rather than sit down with food to watch TV at night, start reading a book chapter each night, or do something arty/crafty.
· Have healthy alternative snacks on hand to reduce risk of buying/eating unhealthy options.
· Go for a walk when alone in the house, rather than eat. See if there are any walking groups, family or friends that might be interested to join you.
It is important to practice alternative sensory strategies regularly, as this will help your brain form new healthier habits to replace the old ones. With repetition and persistence, new neural pathways will increase in strength and the brain’s ability to access them becomes faster and more efficient. This process directly counters the old neural pathways, thus reducing the power of the older, unwanted habits.
Ellen, J (2017). Addiction doc says: It’s not the drugs. It’s the ACEs…adverse childhood experiences. Found in https://acestoohigh.com/2017/05/02/addiction-doc-says-stop-chasing-the-drug-focus-on-aces-people-can-recover/
O’Sullivan, J & Fitzgibbon, C (2018) Sensory Modulation Resource Manual: Changing how you feel through using your senses. Lightening Source, Melbourne.
Smith, M; Segal, J & Segal, R (2018). Emotional Eating -How to Recognize and Stop Emotional and Stress Eating. Found in https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm