Physical illness, lack of sleep and calorie restriction are just a few of the habits that leave us more vulnerable to engaging in behaviors that are emotion-driven, which means that we’re more likely to use food in unhealthy ways to soothe ourselves.
There are other habits that can make us more likely to engage in emotional eating, too. Debra Safer, M.D., a physician and author of “The DBT Solution for Emotional Eating” suggests that we learn the habits that leave us vulnerable to emotional overeating, so that we can take steps to do the opposite.
Take Care of Your Body.
Let’s face it, our culture doesn’t exactly encourage slowing down and taking sick days when they’re needed. But when you aren’t paying attention to your body—whether it be aches, pains, colds or a general sense of feeling worn out—Safer says you’re more likely to emotionally eat.
When we’re not taking care of our bodies, we experience more stress, more irritability and we’re more emotionally reactive. We’re also more likely to make mistakes, which can leave us vulnerable to the twin burdens of guilt and shame, which Safer says is more likely to result in a binge or overeating episode.
Skip the Diets.
It may sound counterintuitive, but experts say that eating balanced meals—featuring the five food groups—at regular intervals without restricting or eating too much is an important part of curbing overeating.
And research actually shows that restricting increases the likelihood of a binge, not the opposite.
“The problem with diets is that most people who diet will regain the weight they lost. For those who binge eat, the chances that this will happen are even greater,” writes Safer.
Even if weight loss is your goal, the rigid rules that dieting involves can sometimes backfire. Restricting calories can make us more vulnerable to emotional eating because of a combination of physical hunger, the stress of rule-following, and the shame or guilt that can accompany the breaking of a diet “rule.”
Check In With Your Substance Use.
Craving greasy food after a night out drinking may be okay once in awhile, but if you notice that you’re overdoing it on a regular or semi-regular basis, it may be worth considering the link between mood-altering substances and overeating.
Marijuana, alcohol, prescription drugs, caffeine and nicotine can increase the likelihood of overeating, according to Safer. Using them can throw off regular mealtimes by temporarily suppressing or enhancing the appetite, increase agitation levels, or simply cloud your judgment around what constitutes good food choices.
Get Enough Sleep, But Not Too Much.
Have you ever noticed how much harder it is to make good food choices—or good choices at all, for that matter—when you’re tired?
One reason for this is that when we’re tired, food does offer an immediate energy boost that can help to get through a work day or attend an after-hours social obligation. Plus, it’s typically considered more acceptable to grab a donut or two from the break room than to take a nap on the floor of your cubicle.
“The use of extra food, coupled with the heightened emotional vulnerability that comes with a tired body, can further increase the likelihood of a binge,” writes Safer.
But before you throw out your alarm clock, keep in mind that getting too much sleep can contribute to overeating, too. The tag team of both the physical and emotional consequences of oversleeping—like headaches, beating ourselves up or feeling depressed—can leave us extra vulnerable to urges to emotionally eat.
Get Moving, Even When You Don’t Feel Like It.
Research continues to support exercise as an effective, natural mood enhancer. Lack of exercise, on the other hand, can lead to lower levels of both emotional and physical well-being, which, you guessed it, also make us vulnerable to emotional eating.
Exercise has now been linked to enhanced mood, lower stress levels and better overall functioning in a number of scientific studies. On the flip side, lack of exercise can contribute to the opposite of all of those things, including the emotional vulnerability that leads us to want to numb out with food.
“An important feature of exercise is that it acts independently of your mood. In other words, you don’t need to be in a good mood to exercise. Exercise will actually act to change your mood. In turn, this will reduce your emotional vulnerability and the likelihood that you’ll engage in emotional eating,” writes Safer.
For more about DBT for emotional eating, check out “The DBT Solution for Emotional Eating“: A Proven Program to Break the Cycle of Bingeing and Out-of-Control Eating.