Most of the world has been in and out of lockdown since March 2020 to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The stressful days are filled with anxiety and uncertainty in not only our work and personal lives, but also with what is happening around us. Since social distancing, sanitizing, and wearing a mask are some of our main concerns, physical health has become our main priority. During such times, caring for our mental health can fall to the wayside, and its repercussions should be taken seriously. 

When we face stressful situations, finding comfort in food is fairly common. Sometimes we turn to emotional eating to suppress our negative emotions or to fill a void. But when overeating, many tend to feel guilty or shameful for gorging on food in this way. This vicious cycle could result in weight gain and obesity in the long run. Let’s understand what exactly emotional eating is, and how we can help ourselves.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is the consumption of food as a response to what we are feeling. Instead of listening to the body and depending on its physical hunger cues, our emotions guide us to when, what, and how much we want to eat. With emotional eating, food is used to calm, soothe, numb, or push down difficult emotions.

What causes emotional eating?

Emotional eating can be caused by anything from work stress to financial worries to relationship struggles. Anything that is mentally or emotionally difficult can drive a person to emotionally eat. 

Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger

We often end up confusing emotional and physical hunger. The table below can help us develop a clearer idea about the differences between the two, so we know which situation we are facing.

Signs of Emotional Hunger

Signs of Physical Hunger

  • Develops abruptly or over a very short period of time.
  • Takes a while to develop.
  • Experiencing cravings for certain foods.
  • Hungry for a variety of foods.
  • Eating a lot but not feeling full.
  • Feeling full and stopping after having enough food.
  • Feeling shameful or guilty after finishing the food.
  • No negative emotions associated with eating food.

How to manage emotional hunger during a pandemic

Be kind to ourselves

So, first things first, let’s be kind to ourselves. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that emotional eating is understandable considering the current situation, and we’re doing the best we can to cope.

Now, imagine a good friend has come to you for help. They’re feeling low. Perhaps they’re struggling with the pandemic. They have turned to eating more than usual in response to their mood and stresses in their life.

How would we speak to a friend? Would we be kind and reassuring, or would we be judgmental?

We can use this as a guiding point for how to talk to ourselves. Usually when we think about how we would help a friend out of such a situation and apply that to ourselves, we are able to be kinder and nicer. 

Identify emotions

Try to identify the emotions that are causing us to emotionally eat so that we are able to gain control over them. If we are struggling to name the emotions, we suggest you use our chart, which is a variation of  The Feeling Wheel by Gloria Willcox. Let’s start in the middle of the page and work our way outwards to try and label what we are feeling.

Ask ourselves

Once we have identified the emotions that are causing us to binge eat, we can ask ourselves some questions to gain more clarity about why we have been feeling this way. 

  • Am I feeling stressed or anxious? 
  • Is my social environment affecting my choices?
  • How can I fulfill that need or express that boundary without turning to food?
  • Have I had this habit since childhood? 
  • Am I feeling bored or empty inside?

How to overcome emotional eating

Find other ways to cope with stress

Finding other, healthier solutions to deal with stress can make it easier to avoid emotional eating. Building healthy habits to replace the unhealthy habits can help us cope better with stress and anxiety. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Keeping a journal can help us write down or even sketch out the emotions we are feeling.
  • Reading a book, magazine, or a blog will help us distract ourselves from the negative emotion.
  • Talking to a partner, friend, or someone trustworthy about difficult feelings.
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Physical exercise or movement

Physical exercise can help with adrenaline, which in turn helps mental stress. Incorporating some kind of physical exercise or movement in our daily routines can help distract us from the feeling of eating. 

Meditate

Meditation supports us in managing emotional eating. There are a variety of studies that support mindfulness meditation as a method to manage emotional eating. Simple deep breathing is a meditation technique that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils. 

Start a food diary

Keeping a log of what we eat in a day and when we eat it may help us identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. While it can be challenging, let’s try to include everything we eat, however big or small. Note the emotions we’re feeling at that exact moment. This may help identify what triggers or causes emotional eating.

Pay attention to volume

Resist grabbing a whole family bag of chips or snacks. Eating according to portion size and choosing smaller plates over larger plates can help control emotional eating; over time, this can help us build mindful eating habits. Once we’ve finished one helping, take some time before going back for a second helping. We can also try another stress-relieving technique, such as deep breathing or meditation in the meantime.

Work on positive self-talk and affirmations

Feelings of shame and guilt are often associated with emotional eating. It is important to work on the self-talk we experience afterwards. Working on the way we talk to ourselves can help us avoid a cycle of emotional eating. Instead of coming down hard on oneself, let’s try learning from the setback. We can give ourselves positive affirmations, which are statements that can help us to challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. Creating a plan for when we feel the urge to emotionally eat can help us make healthier, more mindful choices.

Practicing mindful eating to help cope with emotional eating

Developing a routine can help re-calibrate physical hunger and fullness cues, but it is equally important to work on checking-in with ourselves. Try paying attention to the body, the food, and why we are eating. Is this food necessary for our bodies? Are we nourishing our bodies with this food? Are we hungry? What are the emotions we are feeling right now? This is an opportunity to note emotional hunger vs. physical hunger and how our bodies and minds respond to it.

Seek support 

During this time of self-isolation and in moments of sadness or anxiety, we may feel more alone than ever. A quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for our mood. We can also seek support from a professional and talk to therapists online who can help them with all the mental health issues including emotional eating during this COVID-19 pandemic.

When we are in a lockdown with no one to talk to about our emotions, life can get difficult. Food may help ease emotions initially but addressing and digging deep into the feelings behind emotional eating is important for the long term. We can work on alternative ways of dealing with stress, such as exercise or peer support, and try practicing mindful eating. But remember: confronting our emotional eating habits may come with natural setbacks. And that’s okay – this just provides us an opportunity to learn and grow.