Has your fertility journey ever triggered a wave of unexpected emotions?
And in those moments, have you ever found yourself searching for something to eat?
Well, you are NOT alone.
Finding comfort in food is a common experience, especially when trying to conceive. In fact, there are clear biological explanations for this habit.
The good news is that there are some simple strategies to break free from emotional eating.
Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll discover:
What is emotional eating?
We don’t always turn to food for physical hunger.
Sometimes food serves as a form of escape, particularly during times of stress. And our stressors come in all forms – from major life events to the daily mundane issues.
No matter what the source, all that stress adds up…. relationship conflicts, work-related issues, financial stressors, or the stress of your period showing up when that’s the last thing you wanted.
For many, food can soothe your feelings and calm your nerves in the moment… but unfortunately, the effects aren’t long-lasting and typically only leave you feeling worse than before. Not only can you end up feeling physically ill, but emotionally you may have to deal with the guilt of overeating.
Emotional eating often creates a cycle of guilt and shame, which creates more negative self-talk and a drive to eat even more indulgent foods… This is a cycle that’s hard to stop because, at the moment, the enjoyment of the food makes you feel like you are in control over your emotions.
Ways to identify emotional eating versus true hunger
The first step toward breaking free from emotional eating is to distinguish the behavior from true physical hunger. If you’ve ever been ‘hangry’, then you know there’s a strong, often irrational, urge to eat whatever you can find (Dr. Haas still regrets that day he ate an entire commercial-size bag of chex mix, ugh).
Emotional hunger tends to:
Arise suddenly or hit you out of nowhere
Results in quick, mindless eating (where did that entire bag of chips go?)
Lack of feeling a satisfaction of fullness
Make you crave specific comfort foods (fat-rich, salty, or sweet snacks)
Leave you with feelings of guilt, shame, or negative self-talk
True physical hunger tends to:
Arise gradually or over a long period of time
Trigger non-specific cravings to satisfy your hunger pangs
Result in thoughtful food selection while listening to your body
Prompt you to stop eating when you’re full
Lack any negative feelings about eating
How to know if you ‘eat your feelings’
We recognize that emotional eating may not apply to everyone, but there are a few basic questions you can ask yourself to become aware if you eat based on your feelings:
Does food represent a reward for a particular outcome (good or bad)?
Does being around food cause you to feel out of control?
Do you commonly eat past the point of feeling full?
Does food calm feelings of anxiety or sadness?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may have a tendency for emotional eating. Take pause and look at any moments of emotional eating as an opportunity to get in touch with your feelings and listen to what your body really needs.
It’s extremely important to acknowledge patterns of emotional eating as it can lead to an eating disorder such as binge eating. Make sure to see your doctor if you feel like your eating patterns are beyond your control.
How to recognize your emotional overeating triggers
Women trying to conceive can be triggered to emotionally eat by any number of things. Some of the more common triggers we encounter, include:
Rapid hormonal fluctuations
Anticipation around becoming a parent
Stress around the constant waiting periods
Disappointment in undesired outcomes
Feeling generally out of control with the process
Recognizing your stress triggers is hugely important. And the good news is there are ways to dial in on your emotions and find healthier coping mechanisms that don’t leave you feeling worse than when you started.
Top tips to break free from emotional eating
Tip #1 – Start a food diary: This may seem basic, but it is one of the most effective ways to identify emotional eating and its triggers. Write down the time, what and how much you ate, your hunger level, how full you were after, your primary emotion prior to eating, and who you were with (if anyone). A good place to start your diary is with eating at non-standard mealtimes.
Sample entry: Monday, 9:45PM – 1 bag of potato chips, not hungry before, bloated/sick afterwards, ate while alone
Tip #2 – Gauge your actual hunger level: Do you have the urge to eat, but you just ate lunch 2 hours ago? First, ask yourself if you actually got enough for lunch (that granola bar isn’t going to cut it). Have you been staying hydrated with enough water today? Is your stomach growling? Once you’ve determined it’s not thirst or true hunger, take 5 slow deep breaths. Identify your predominant emotion in the moment. If it’s calm and you’re simply hungry, then reach for a piece of fresh fruit and raw nuts. Mixing fiber with a healthy fat or protein is a well-balanced snack that will curb hunger. If you’re stressed and find that your stomach isn’t actually hungry, take a 5-minute stretch or brisk walk. Give the urge and craving time to pass and move on with your day.
Tip #3 – Get rid of the temptation: If there’s a common food or food group that you identify in your food diary as the primary culprit for your emotional eating episode, simply don’t keep it around. Seeing it in the cupboard is often the only thing it takes to be triggered. Replace it with something nourishing or soothing instead. Dr. Eskew recommends stocking herbal tea in the pantry…. It will occupy your mouth, and likely calm your emotions and stop an episode of emotional eating much more effectively than that ½ gallon of ice cream.
Tip #4 – Don’t deprive yourself: Are you trying to eat less today in order to compensate for the episode of emotional overeating? This is very different than trying to lose a few pounds to improve your chances of getting pregnant. If you do experience an episode of emotional overeating, do not restrict calories at a later point in time. Committing to healthier food selections in the future is perfectly okay, and will help reset your mindset around food.
Tip #5 – Be mindful when you eat: Slow down and take the time to enjoy what you’re eating. Take the time to chew your food, pay attention to the textures and flavors, and be present. Unplug and go technology-free while you’re eating — this noise often acts as a distractor that leads to mindless eating. Acknowledge that you’re eating food to nourish your body because you are hungry. It is not serving as a reward, or as punishment.
Tip #6 – Develop other healthy habits to support your mental and emotional wellbeing: Some of our top lifestyle-related recommendations include:
Get those 7-8 hours of recommended sleep
Drink a minimum of 64 oz of water per day
Move your body daily (this can be a 15 minute walk or a 45 minute run, whatever you enjoy!)
Connect with friends and family
Make time for relaxation
Tip #7 – Be compassionate with yourself and take it one day at a time: Making mistakes gives us an opportunity to learn something and grow from it. Start seeing “setbacks” as an opportunity to make a plan for how to prevent the same from happening again in the future. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Focus on the positive changes you are adopting in your life with each day. You are worthy of great and unconditional love. And that starts with you loving you.
Moving beyond the practical strategies and tips to stop emotional eating, we want to remind you of an important point while trying to conceive – you get to be in control of your journey!
The foods you choose to nourish your body over the long-term… your inner dialogue and self-talk when stress creeps up… the way you choose to move your body to relieve anxiety… which friends or loved ones you turn to for support (not everyone deserves to know your story)… how you and your partner decide to connect… and how you choose to practice self-love.
These things are so important throughout your fertility journey. Don’t discount them simply because they aren’t prescribed as a part of your conventional treatment regimen.
Self-care trumps all.
When trying to conceive, it seems like so many things are outside of your control… and while that may be true relative to other situations, it’s during the times of disappointment, waiting, and the unknown that tuning into the way you treat yourself is most important.
Be compassionate and forgiving toward yourself.
Most importantly, reach out to your doctor if you feel like you’re unable to reset your eating patterns with the strategies we’ve discussed. When emotional eating is not addressed, it can develop into an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.