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Hello Idaho: Overcoming emotional eating

When there's a lot in our lives that we can't control, sometimes food can be an easy source of comfort.

BOISE, Idaho — When there's a lot in our lives that we can't control-- sometimes food can be an easy source of comfort.

Dr. Julie Wood with Optum Idaho says when people get stressed, some turn to food as a way to cope with those negative feelings. 

“Do I often find myself in the kitchen when I am feeling lonely, tired, or just generally down? Do I often find myself looking to the vending machine when I’m stressed out at work, or do I find going through the drive-through on my way home from work several times a week?" she asked. "On the flip side – do I celebrate with food or reward myself with food when I’m feeling good? If you answer yes to some of these or all of these, you may be an emotional eater.”

Wood warned that emotional eating can affect people physically, leading to obesity, diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol. But the mental toll is real as well, with many sufferers feeling intense shame about their habit.

“Once you understand what’s driving that habit you can learn to change those patterns of emotional eating," she said. "I suggest keeping a food journal. Write down everything you eat, when you eat it, where you eat it, why you eat it, what are you feeling, what are those emotions, and then also how much you’re eating.”

It's important to recognize the difference between physical hunger - which arises gradually - and the sudden onset of emotional hunger, which is more likely to be satisfied by sweet, salty or fatty high-calorie foods. 

"[With] physical hunger, our brain and our stomach are talking to one another and help us understand when we’re full, whereas emotional eating we tend to mindlessly eat, and eat large quantities of food and still feel unsatisfied,” Wood said.

Breaking bad habits don’t happen overnight: They take time, commitment, and a positive attitude. Wood suggests focusing on what she calls the "Four B's" - be positive, be realistic, be persistent, and be vigilant.

“If you’re feeling depressed, reach out for support from friends or family. Do an act of kindness for somebody that you feel like is maybe feeling a little bit down as well, we find that really lifts our mood," she said. "If you’re feeling anxious do something that draws focus from your mind – work a puzzle, read a book, do some kind of activity such as coloring. When you’re bored, get physical or be active, take a walk, do something creative, explore new hobbies.”

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