February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We'll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.
It's the night before your first midterm and the items on your to-do list are piling up by the minute. You need to study for your 8 AM exam, figure out when to begin that essay you've been putting off all week, put the finishing touches on your internship application, and that's just the beginning. You're feeling burnt out from a long day of classes and stressed about the amount of work in front of you. Even though you just ate dinner an hour ago, you decide to open up a bag of chips—but before you know it, they're gone.
Sound familiar? This is called emotional eating. Her Campus talked with Katie Clark, a Registered Dietitian practicing in California and Assistant Clinical Professor of Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, to help you deal with stressed-out binges and learn more about this issue.
What is emotional eating?
Clark explains, “Emotional eating is using your emotions as a driver for eating, as opposed to listening to your hunger cues.” Rather than waiting to feel hunger in order to eat, an emotional eater might dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry's after a bad break-up or snack every ten minutes while studying. Triggers are as varied as the roadblocks you encounter on a daily basis: school-related stress, relationship issues, financial pressures, exhaustion, and feelings of anger, boredom or loneliness.
Why does emotional eating occur?
While it's rare to think, “Hmm, I'm stressed out. I'll eat a cookie to make myself feel better,” that's more or less the thought process your mind goes through. Clark explains, “Emotional eating can help temporarily fulfill a need.” That need could be stress, anger, sadness, or fatigue, among others. In the short-term, eating provides sensory pleasure and gives us an energy boost, which is why it makes us feel better. It's easy to form a mental association between eating and feeling better, which is why some people turn to emotional eating as a method of satisfying their needs when they're feeling down. The trouble with this behavior, however, is that it can turn into an unhealthy habit in the long run.
Why is emotional eating unhealthy?
“If emotional eating is a temporary, infrequent occurrence, it may not have serious side effects,” says Clark. Sure, you might experience the occasional sugar crash after a single cookie binge, but indulging in food when you're not hungry from time to time isn't terribly harmful.
However, constantly turning to food whenever you're feeling down can quickly add up to unwanted pounds. It's easy to rely on convenient pizza deliveries and fast food joints when you're spending hours with your nose buried in textbooks, but those unhealthy choices can have a negative impact over time. One collegiette discovered the effects of emotional eating firsthand. “Last year, I found myself eating to distract myself from the long hours of homework. But over the summer, I wasn't stressed out about school, so I lost twenty pounds without changing my exercise routine at all,” says Katrina, a freshman at the College of Wooster.
Furthermore, emotional eating can perpetuate an unhealthy diet. Clark says, “For an individual who engages in emotional eating regularly, provided that the eating leads to excessive caloric intake, it may lead to weight gain, which in turn increases the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.” Additionally, an unhealthy diet can make you feel tired and sluggish, which ultimately makes the immediate situation – the research paper you haven't started yet, your fight with your boyfriend, or whatever else is bothering you – even worse.
Emotional eating can be mentally taxing, as well. “If you're an emotional eater, it's not the end of the world,” Clark says. “It's not an eating disorder unless it directly affects parts of your life other than your weight.” However, for some emotional eaters, their relationship with food can devolve into binge eating disorder, the pattern of frequently consuming very large amounts of calories in a short period of time. Binge eating disorder falls under the wide spectrum of eating disorders classified as EDNOS, which stands for Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. According to Clark, binges are triggered by emotional events may point to an eating disorder. If your binges begin to get in the way of your overall health, schoolwork, and relationships, you may benefit from seeking help.
The problem with emotional eating arises when it develops into a long-term pattern. “Stress doesn't vanish when you graduate,” Clark says. “It just gets worse.” As tough as emotional eating can be now, it can get even worse if you don't address the situation. If you find yourself turning to food to cope with your stress, the key is to identify the problem and learn to deal with it constructively now. “When you're in college, you have so much support on campus – dietitians at your student health center, friends, sorority sisters, etc. Once you move into the professional world, you don't necessarily have such accessible support.” It's important to have your coping mechanisms under control before you graduate.
How can you cope with emotional eating?
Understand why you eat. Clark suggests keeping a food journal. For each entry, detail what you're eating, when you're eating it, and how you feel. Over time, you can identify patterns—for example, you might notice a ton of late-night snacks when you're feeling stressed about school or a habit of indulging in lots of sugary treats when you're bored. Once you can see negative patterns, you can replace them with positive patterns. Break up your studying by putting on upbeat music, doing a few jumping jacks, or chewing a stick of gum.
Stay hydrated. “The majority of adults are dehydrated throughout most of their lives, especially those who drink alcohol,” Clark says. Because the parts of your brain that control hunger and thirst are linked, you might inadvertently be feeling a false sense of hunger that actually stems from dehydration. Cut down on fake hunger by carrying a bottle of water with you, keeping one at your desk, and refilling it often.
Get help if you need it. If you're having trouble dealing with your eating habits on your own, you may benefit from getting help. Most schools have health professionals on campus who can help get your eating habits under control. Appointments at the student health center are usually free and completely confidential. If you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, don't hesitate to reach out for help! Suffering in silence will only hurt you in the long run.
The Bottom Line
There's an important distinction between occasionally grazing on snacks when you're bored and consistently using food as a coping mechanism every time you're upset or stressed. Not all hunger-less eating constitutes emotional eating. But if you struggle with emotional eating, it's important to learn to control the issue before it turns into a long-term problem.
Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you're looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.