It’s been a long, hard day. In a tough week. In a month that just won’t end. As your eyes flick towards the clock on the office wall, you realise it’s only 10AM. On Tuesday.

And that’s when you hear it.

That small voice.

Calling your name …

“Eat me.”

You resolutely face your screen and apply your industrious fingers to the keyboard. Nothing can distract you from the work you have to finish.

“You know you want to …”

Not to mention the diet you started at the beginning of the year. It’s only been two weeks. You can’t quit now.

“Just one bite …”

Before you know it, you’ve inhaled an entire bar of chocolate. As you guiltily lick the last chocolate-infused molecules from your fingertips, you wonder how that sneaky treat found its way into your desk drawer in the first place.

More than that, you find yourself pondering the deeper questions of life. Like, “how can I break this addiction to sweet stuff?” and “when did become addicted to sweet snacks in the first place?”

Sugar as comfort food

Comforting ourselves with sweet food is an ancient coping mechanism. And, like sugar, it’s a perfectly natural response. In a study submitted to the US National Library of Medicine, authors Danielle Reed and Amanda McDaniel explain this primal urge:

‘The sense of taste gives us important information about the nature and quality of food, and of all the basic taste qualities, sweetness is the most universally liked. The human appetite for refined sugar and for sweet foods and drinks has been so strong that it has influenced the course of human history … An organizing explanation for the general attractiveness of sweets is that sugar has calories, and therefore sugar is a chemical signal for nutrients that can be readily detected and used for energy by animals. Furthermore, sugar also is a signal for safety because sweet items are rarely poisonous.’

We’re designed to seek out sweet things when we’re stressed.

Parents instinctively know this, and can often be seen feeding their squalling small people a sweet (and distracting!) treat when they face a challenge they feel unable to cope with.

Of course, we no longer live in a Neolithic era, where running from mammoths or towards gazelles was a normal part of life. For many of us, the biggest physical challenge we face is the potential repetitive strain injury that could result from our only physical exercise: computer mouse ninja skills.

Because we still turn to sweet treats as the first line of defence against stress of any kind, we’ve learned to substitute food for coping skills, resulting in wide-spread emotional eating. Worse still, we’re teaching our kids to do the same thing!

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating, essentially, is what we call eating that happens in response to a change in emotional state, rather than because of hunger.

You may be angry, sad, stressed out, lonely, or even bored. When you find yourself eating because of these feelings, rather than because of a physical need for sustenance, that’s emotional eating.

It can be normal, occasionally, to eat something sweet or high in carbs when your mood is low. These foods metabolise quickly into sugar that your body uses to perk up your brain, and regain equilibrium. But if that happens often, you’re an emotional eater.

How to spot an emotional eater

Do you suspect that you or someone you love is an emotional eater? Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for

  • Eating because you feel a strong emotion, not because you’re hungry.
  • Feeling an urgent need to eat food that is not related to a hypoglycaemic event.
  • Craving a specific food or type of food.
  • Eating at unusual or irregular times of day or night.
  • Gaining weight.
  • Feeling guilty or embarrassed when you eat.
  • Hiding food or food containers.
  • Sneaking food when you’re stressed or emotional.

What’s the problem with being an emotional eater?

When your body starts to need that hit of food to feel “normal”, you’re treading on thin ice. You’ll be able to recognise it easily enough. Your friend hurts your feelings, and you suddenly crave a chocolate bar. You’re bored at home on Friday night, and you reach for a bag of crisps. You worried about the month-end bills, so you obliterate a pizza. The big one. With all the trimmings. And then you hide the trash in the big bin outside, on the lawn – the one you share with the neighbours – so that no one will know it was you.

If this sounds familiar, you might have a problem.

Using food for comfort can lead to overeating, which brings a wide range of challenges with it, including weight gain and health problems.

While the odd Rolo after a rough week may have its place, it’s not a permanent solution. And when it becomes a habit, it becomes a problem. Especially when we teach this behaviour to our children. Not only are we creating a planet of overweight, ill people; we’re denying ourselves healthier coping mechanisms – which have better success rates.

What causes emotional eating?

Before we can find solutions, we need to look at the underlying causes of the problem. Emotional eating can be triggered by any emotion, from deeply negative to profoundly joyful. The more common emotional triggers include:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Change
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Loss
  • Resentment
  • Stress

However, these emotions are just triggers. They are not the cause of the problem. Eating as a response to an emotional trigger is a learned behaviour. While it’s true that we have some ancient physiological basis for this tendency, we are overreacting on a global scale.

Healthy coping strategies

It’s the thought that counts

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. In 1998, US researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked about 30 000 adults to rate both their stress levels over the last 12 months, and their perception of how those levels impacted their health and quality of life. Then the researchers monitored public death records for the following eight years, to record the passing of any respondents.

Stress did indeed increase the risk of premature death by as much as 43% … but only for those who perceived it as a bad thing.
In fact, the results speak volumes:

‘High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.’

Further studies corroborate these findings:

Give a little love

Author and researcher Michael J. Poulin led a team of researchers at the University of Buffalo in a study on stress and its possible antidotes. They studied a group of 850 respondents living in high-crime areas in Detroit, Michigan, US. Each participant was asked to track how many stressful events they’d experienced during the previous 12 months, and also to record how many times they had helped others in the same period. Again, deaths were tracked in the public register, this time for a period of five years.

The results showed that a major stress event increases risk of premature death by up to 30%, while acts of generosity and helping others significantly reduced that likelihood – even, in some cases, erasing it altogether. The study concludes,

‘Helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.’

Cry it out

Even so, prolonged exposure to stress, or strong emotion of any kind, is not always fun. Giving vent to your emotions can help you cope, though. According to PsychCentral.com,

“While people feel a profound difference between happiness and sadness, the body often doesn’t make a distinction. Intense situations of any sort can provoke overwhelming reactions. Whether the trigger is a political victory or a crisis, the body produces more stress hormones as part of the preparation for the fight-or-flight response.

Tears act as a safety valve by releasing excess stress hormones such as cortisol. If left unchecked, chronic elevated levels of these hormones can cause physical ailments and play havoc with mood. As stress often precedes a good cry, the sense of calm often felt afterward is at least in part due to hormonal release.”

Tears are your body’s way of getting the bad feelings (or the good ones) out. Teaching children the benefits of healthy crying and how to safely express their emotions empowers them and helps them feel validated. They build the tools to manage their own emotions without feeling that what they feel is too big and scary for anyone to handle, and should be bottled in. Bottled emotions always find a way out, wreaking havoc as they go. It’s much healthier to find safe, constructive ways to express those feelings when they’re still small and manageable.

Use your words

Journalingis not new, but it is gaining popularity as more celebrities and life coaches discuss the benefits of the practice. Simply, journaling is writing. Purists recommend spending the first 20 minutes of every day letting your thoughts flow through your pen and onto the blank page before you as a way to make sense of your life.

The key is not to edit yourself as you write. Just allowing the thoughts to flow will help you detect patterns and even uncover the hidden solution your infinitely wise mind already holds locked away. At the very least, the practise unravels the chaos behind the strong emotions and breaks it down to a reasonable size.

Children can be taught to journal from as soon as they can hold a crayon. Letting them express themselves onto paper teaches them a useful life skill, so the sooner they can learn to do so, the better.

Get moving

Exercise reduces stress levels. According to the American Psychology Association,

‘Researchers are still working out the details of that action: how much exercise is needed, what mechanisms are behind the boost exercise brings, and why — despite all the benefits of physical activity — it’s so hard to go for that morning jog. But as evidence piles up, the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore… [and] the effects of physical activity extend beyond the short-term. Research shows that exercise can also help alleviate long-term depression.’

Including regular exercise will reduce stress levels over time. It can also be an instant mood lift, improving stress levels from the moment you start.

Children need lots of time to play. Until the age of ten, in fact, play is their primary learning channel. Allowing them plenty of free time outdoors will ensure better stress management over all, as the combined effects of fresh air, healthy physical movement, and plenty of sunshine, all add up to a happier child.

Look over there!

Sometimes being wrapped up in the immediate challenges we face can overwhelm us. This is when it helps to distract ourselves – or be distracted. Read a book. Go for a walk. Watch your favourite show. Grab a coffee, or chat to a friend.

Changing position changes perspective, and sometimes that’s all you need to make a monstrous challenge more manageable.

This is just as true with our children. We can engage their attention in activities we know they enjoy, or introduce them to something new. Combining distraction with something healthy, such as story time, or a walk in the garden, delivers twice the value, as we defuse the stressful situation and introduce positive new habits.

Get help

If none of these strategies work, it might be time to get professional help. A counsellor or trained psychologist can work with you (or your child) to identify and treat the cause of your stress, as well as help develop healthy coping strategies and a fresh perspective on the situation.

How can I help my child?

If emotional eating is already a feature of your child’s life, there are steps you can take to turn the situation around.

  • Be a good example – most of us learned our emotional eating habits from our parents, and our kids have learned them from us. Start by choosing to make smart food choices for yourself and your family, and lead by example.
  • Be honest about your concerns – gently and very kindly chat to your child about your concerns. Be extremely careful not to deride your child or stoop to name-calling. Not only is it not helpful; it’s likely to make the situation even worse.
  • Help your child identify stressors and their reaction to those and to food – when you chat to your child about your concerns, work together to understand what triggers their emotional eating. Help them make the connection between the situations and their consequent actions. Also try to help them see the effect that certain foods have on their bodies.
  • Brainstorm – develop an action plan together. Be practical and positive, and avoid guilt-tripping.
  • Create a safe space for expressing emotions. A healthy home should be a no-judgment zone.

Moderation is key

Sweet food is delicious, and the occasional treat certainly has its place.

The key is moderation.

Using sweet snacks as a coping mechanism for the bits of life that don’t make us comfortable is not healthy. Nor is it sustainable.

When we teach our children that feeling and expressing emotions is normal and healthy, and we teach them safe and positive strategies for doing so, we give them the tools for developing self-control, and living an abundant life. A life in which they can enjoy the sweet things without any unpleasant or dangerous side effects.

And that’s a very sweet life indeed.