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What to do about binge/emotional eating

Woman scoffing a quick lunch
Tags: Health

Don't be surprised that humans are emotional eaters – we're not designed to live at the pace we do today – eating is soothing and certain foods change our body chemistry and make us feel better – chocolate for instance. Our inner caveperson craves sweet and calorie rich foods as a survival mechanism. We crave salty things because salt is important to our body chemistry – our brain doesn't understand that these foods that were often rare to our pre-historic ancestors are now available in huge amounts at the supermarket. So it's biochemical as well as psychological that we eat to make ourselves feel better.

Try to flow with your human nature – when you feel like you want to emotionally eat – be empathetic with yourself and understand that because you feel emotional, vulnerable or whatever feeling you're feeling right now, the brain wants to give you a little oral gratification. Try and work with your natural self and don't get angry at it for wanting to do what it only thinks is best for you; be purposeful and mindful about it.

Some things to do about emotional eating

  • Try making small changes to your diet first - not big drastic ones and substitute one or two "Don't" foods for "Do" foods.
  • Have a supporter – someone who promises to keep their phone on so you can call them when you have an emotional eating episode. You might make yourself accountable to them if you like (ask if you can call them when you're about to binge).
  • Don't go on very restricted diets. Try not to get truly, physically hungry – diets do this by depriving you of food, causing your survival brain to panic – then when you start eating you can't stop.
  • Eat at the table – no TV, turn on the music. Eat quietly and mindfully.
  • Be present and eat mindfully – pay attention to each mouthful, chew slowly; savour and enjoy – wait for the quiet hormone to kick in that says 'I've had enough'. It's not noisy, unlike the "I'm starving" hormone - so eating quietly at the table helps us notice it.
  • Remember emotional eating is above the neck – its mouth hunger not tummy hunger – check where your hunger is – if it's above the neck and only in your mouth, it's not real.
  • Delaying gratification is good – tell yourself you'll have something to eat but not for 15 minutes, then re-focus on something else (action and distraction).
  • Make a list of strategies for actions and distractions to re-focus onto like:
    • Reading
    • Playing a computer game or a game with someone else (even better)
    • Playing with the family pet if you have one
    • Pull out a few weeds if you have a garden – or just go out in it and enjoy the fresh air
    • Walk, walk, walk, even a 5 minute walk can improve your mood (and other exercise of course)
  • Substitute. Swap "Don't" foods for "Do" foods – e.g. substitute chocolate for as much celery as you can eat one or two (only) sugar-free candies (too many can send you running to the toilet)
  • Reduce stressors and practice good stress management.
  • Don't blame and shame yourself – be kind to yourself.
  • Give yourself rewards and incentives (money is good – a special weekend, night out etc).
  • Question your beliefs about food and cravings e.g. if you can't stop thinking about food, are you avoiding thinking about something, or facing up to something?

Binge eating is often accompanied by purging and can cause serious problems. If this is the case with you – please seek help.

The Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders 1800 33 4673
Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800
Griefline Community and Family Services - 1300 845 745