How to avoid binge eating at home (and get healthy instead)

Lift your mood with a variety of wholefoods and fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables.
Lift your mood with a variety of wholefoods and fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables. Photo: iStock

For most of us, the months ahead will be spent largely cocooned indoors, so it's a fair guess that many will seek comfort in a familiar place: food.  

Here, nutrition experts share what we can do to prevent emotional eating over the coming seasons.  

Victorian accredited practising dietitian Kara Landau of Uplift Foods says it helps to be mindful of what and how much you eat. 

"It's easy during stressful times to turn to food to make yourself feel better," she says. 

"While no specific food will prevent or cure you from a viral infection, it's still important that you continue to consume nourishing foods that equally set up your immune system to be as strong as it can."

Landau suggests lifting your mood with a variety of wholefoods and fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables.

Recognise your triggers for binge eating, and try another activity instead.
Recognise your triggers for binge eating, and try another activity instead. Photo: iStock

"Keep your moods elevated as much as possible - think a colourful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and all other wholefoods.

"Eating foods that can make us feel good can be empowering given the circumstances where a lot of things are out of our control. It's an opportunity to ... prioritise our wellbeing."

Several studies have found a diet high in refined sugars and highly processed foods correlates with impaired brain function and negative mood symptoms such as depression, fatigue and anxiety, plus increased levels of inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.

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On the flipside, nutritional psychiatry has shown that putting nutritious foods into our systems helps control our moods and energy levels as various pathways connect our stomach to our brain.

How to limit emotional eating

To know if the signals you're getting are from real hunger or emotional triggers, stop for a moment and ask yourself, "Am I physically hungry or am I about to eat because I feel stressed, anxious, or sad?" says Samantha Clarke, a clinical psychologist who specialises in weight difficulties and problematic eating behaviours.

"Emotional eating is often an automatic default response to stress, anxiety and loneliness – all inner experiences that are very common at the moment – where we tend to eat without thinking about it," says Clarke.

Take the time to check in with yourself around what you're thinking and feeling.

Samantha Clarke, clinical psychologist

As Landau says: "Physical hunger, on the other hand, lasts longer so once you find yourself in the fridge, close it and sit back down. If 20 minutes later you're still craving food then you're indeed hungry." 

If you realise that the trigger is actually anxiety, shift your energy onto other activities: go for a walk, do some exercise, call a friend and even reach out to online communities for support.

Clarke suggests using the time to do meaningful activities related to your health, family, interests and education.

"Take the time to check in with yourself around what you're thinking and feeling," she says. "Be curious about what you can learn and how you shift your behaviour."

Clarke says many people fall into old habits as a way of avoiding unpleasant emotions. 

"Be kind to yourself when you do emotionally eat and acknowledge this as an old strategy that you've used when feeling down or stressed," she says.

"Remember too that this time shall pass and that this level of stress and anxiety is only short-term and therefore the urge to eat will not always be so high."

Landau agrees, saying that if you do give into cravings, try not to be too hard on yourself. "This is a time to be kind to yourself, not to create food fear - just make a better decision next time."

Conversely, if your anxiety takes you the other way and you find yourself eating less, Landau recommends trying a small portion of a nourishing food you still enjoy - such as a warm soup, a smoothie or fruit salad. 

Extra tips and tricks

If emotional eating is a challenge for you, try limiting the amount of food in your house that you're likely to binge on, Clarke says.

Make a meal plan and set some healthy eating goals around meals, including when and how often you can indulge on takeaway and other treats.

"Furthermore, limit TV viewing if you tend to snack, as binge watching TV and emotional eating go together."

Spending time at home can also be a great opportunity to get back in touch with your natural hunger cues, Landau says. In other words, learning how to eat when you're physically hungry and stop when you're full.

"Overall, use this time to get more enjoyment out of your food and eating habits by learning how to cook, ... sharing recipes and cooking skills online, eating a greater variety of foods and trying some new ingredients [from the back of your] pantry."

"This time has the potential to heighten our sense of health, joy and quality of life if we just remain open and curious to getting to know ourselves through our eating habits," Clarke says.