A psychologist’s plan to break free from emotional COVID-19 isolation eating

Don’t let emotional eating sabotage your weight loss efforts. Here, psychologist Cliff Batley shares exactly how to find, and gain, control over your eating habits whilst in coronavirus isolation.

Everyone has that go-to treat they crave when feeling a bit down, and let’s been honest, 2020 has been rough. Between bushfires, COVID-19 and a global recession, we’re all feeling the need for a little comfort food.

However, if we find ourselves regularly turning to food when we feel stressed, upset or lonely, we soon find ourselves in an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating. This ultimately results in frustration and self-loathing, accompanied by a feeling of guilt, which is never a positive outcome.

Put simply, emotional eating is when we eat in response to a situation—be it a stressful day at work, a spat with your spouse or anxiety about your unwieldy to-do list—rather than due to genuine hunger.

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If you can relate, you’re in good company. Research shows that around 40 per cent of people habitually increase their caloric intake when faced with stress, while 20 per cent of people don’t alter their eating behaviours.

But why is it that we turn to fatty, sugary, starchy foods for comfort, when logically we know it’s not ideal? Generally, food is often perceived as something that comforts people and there’s a biological effect in that some foods release hormones that may temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.

Furthermore, research shows that stress fuels our appetite for fatty, sugary foods, and these highly palatable foods can trigger biological and behavioural changes consistent with addiction —which explains why we don’t comfort eat carrots.

Emotional eating is also driven by the desire for immediate respite from tough emotions. Evolution says that we’re predisposed to find a quicker, easier way to get happiness—that’s why the wheel was invented and why we had the industrial revolution. However, we’re still going to be in the same emotional turmoil in the future, based on choosing a short-term quick fix.

So how do we combat this? It is possible to overcome emotional eating, heal your relationship with food and work through those tough emotions.

How to combat emotional iso eating

1. Work out what your triggers are

Keep a food dairy to monitor what you’re eating, but add in information about the context of when you’re eating and how you’re feeling at the time.

Keeping a record of habitual behaviours helps people distance themselves from them and externalises them in a way, and often the person gets a sense of empowerment over changing that behaviour. For example, you may realise you tend to stress when you’re leading up to end of month reports at work. So, create a new healthier way of dealing with that stress such as going to a Pilates class or meditating.

2. Lean in to your emotions

Our go to response to unpleasant emotions like anxiety and depression is to suppress them and food often seems like an easy distraction. However, this is only a short-term resolution, and it will continue to snowball. So instead of ignoring those feelings, accept what’s happening and if you need support, seek it out, if that’s counselling or just speaking with a close friend.

What you can also do is understand that the feeling has never hurt you; it’s the behaviours you choose in response to a feeling that hurt you.

3. Find other feel-good strategies

Your self-soother might be dancing to an uplifting song, going to the gym or doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s also important to cultivate a sense of fulfilment. You want to attach emotions of pride and happiness to something that will raise your dopamine and serotonin levels, without needing food to do it.

Ideally, this would be an achievement-oriented activity. Think of five things you could tick off over the next year that would make you feel really good about who you are as a person. Prioritise these things, and you’ll have an emotional booster that builds your self-esteem, rather than (like emotional eating) undermines it.

4. Coming back from a slip-up

A lapse can actually serve as a learning opportunity. Ask yourself, ‘if this was here to teach me something, what has it taught me?’ For instance, it may shed light on what triggers you to comfort eat, or make you realise you’ve neglected self-care of late, leaving you emotionally vulnerable. Acceptance is the first step to moving on.

3 steps to navigating emotional eating

Step 1: Work out if you’re genuinely hungry

Ask yourself why you’re at the fridge or pantry: is it due to hunger, or because you’re drained, overwhelmed etc? If you’re hungry, you should go eat something that is filling and nutritious. Try some homemade popcorn, crackers with hummus or fruit and yoghurt first, and see if that takes the edge off your craving.

Step 2: Disrupt the craving

If you still can’t shake the craving, give yourself permission to have what you want. Rather than fight it, say ‘okay, I’m going to eat that, but I’ll have it in 10 minutes’. In the interim, you might walk around the block, have a shower, run some errands or do some household chores. That helps interrupt the negative thought pattern that leads to the habit of eating something unhealthy.

Step 3: Check in with ‘future you’

If you’re tempted to eat for emotional reasons, ask yourself how you’ll feel in 10 minutes’ time if you chose to eat a certain food, or whether you’ll feel better if you do something to distract yourself, then come back and rethink it.

Cliff Battley is a Clinical Psychologist. For more information on Cliff, head here.