With summer coming to an end, college classes are just around the corner. Whether you’re a bright-eyed freshman keen on getting started or a seasoned senior ready to finish, heading to classes and settling into a new routine can take a toll on both your physical health and mental health while causing increased stress and negative emotions such as fear, apprehension, and even boredom.
Under normal circumstances, these emotions can lead to emotional eating, so it is no surprise that changes in schedules, routines and surroundings can easily trigger eating as a way to cope.
What is Emotional Eating and why is it such a big deal?
Emotional eating is the consumption of food as a response to feelings and emotions (even boredom!) rather than as a response to your body’s hunger cues. It usually involves fun foods such as chocolate, ice cream, chips, and pastries, but not necessarily.
In and of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with emotional eating. Food is actually inherently emotional: culturally it is used as a means of connection and celebration, with nourishment being only one of the reasons we eat.
To add to this, eating is one of many ways to cope with hard emotions, and it does a relatively quick and good job of it too! However, emotional eating becomes an issue when it is the only way you have to cope and when it interferes with your daily life and causes you distress.
Why does it happen and who is at risk?
Eating food activates the reward system in the brain via dopamine receptors. This is actually a good thing and one of the things that have kept us alive as a species! Imagine a caveman having to find, hunt, prepare, cook, and eat his meals every day. If eating wasn’t pleasurable and “worth it”, we would have given up long ago. This pleasurable sensation is quick and practically effortless. All we have to do is EAT. So it is no surprise that we humans tend to gravitate toward eating as a “quick fix” when we are feeling negative emotions such as boredom, sadness, or anxiety.
That being said, there are some things that can put you at a higher risk of not being able to control your emotional eating urges:
Being hungry can set you up for emotional eating when even a minor feeling comes up. Needing food brings down the threshold of tolerating emotions.
A baseline negative emotional state can also be a risk factor for using food as a way to cope. Stressors can be day-to-day triggers like being in a new environment or the hustle of classes. They can also be even event-specific triggers such as exams or big assignments and projects.
Lack of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep or being tired can have a significant impact on your ability to cope with emotions. Chronic sleep deprivation can have an even bigger effect, triggering emotional eating quicker.
Other than being physically and biologically hungry, restricting certain food groups or having food rules can also set you up for a quick fall into the emotional eating trap. Restrictions wire our brains to want the restricted items more causing us to think about them more often and actively seek them out.
What are some easy steps to get a hold of it?
Notice the triggers
Keeping a journal or record of your emotional eating episodes can give you a better idea of what’s behind them.
Identify the emotion
Identifying and naming your emotions can help you find new ways to cope that directly target the emotion itself.
Remove/manage the triggers
Where possible, removing or managing the triggers can help with avoiding emotion from the start.
Coping with the emotions
Having a list of ways to cope other than food can be helpful to refer to when the urge to use food to deal with your feelings comes along.
Putting your mental health first is very important since chronic negative emotions and stress can put you at risk for emotional eating.
Seek help when necessary
This type of eating can be a symptom of an eating disorder, so seeking professional guidance is important if you feel like it is out of control.
All in all, it is important to keep in mind that there’s nothing actually wrong with emotional eating as long as it’s not causing you distress and interfering with your daily life. For optimal physical health and mental health, it is important to work on having insight into your emotions and their triggers, refining a toolbox of different coping mechanisms all while properly nourishing your body. This way, at the moment, you have the space to decide whether or not you want to engage in emotional eating.