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How to Support Employees Struggling With Emotional Eating

How to Support Employees Struggling With Emotional Eating

Emotions are often tied to food to some degree. After all, there's a reason why we call it comfort food. Certain foods just make us feel better emotionally.

But it can become a problem when you eat because you want to feel better emotionally—especially if that becomes how you process all of your negative emotions.

According to the Mayo Clinic, emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. Thanks to the pandemic, 47% of adults say they've begun eating more food. That can have an impact on their health and wellness, which is a concern for any employer striving to help employees achieve optimal well-being.

But what role should an employer play in helping employees deal with emotional eating? How can they help?

It starts with understanding what emotional eating is … and what it isn’t. To help illustrate this, we spoke with an employee at one of our partner companies to learn about her journey with emotional eating, how she addressed it, and what she would like to see employers offer their workforce.

Meet a Recovering Emotional Eater

Krista’s journey is like many others. She learned to be an emotional eater naturally.

Food Was Soothing

Like in many families, Krista’s parents often rewarded their children with “a treat.” But as the youngest and least outspoken in her family, she was often left to handle her emotions on her own. Eating as a way to self-soothe became a habit.

“It was my reaction to everything,” she says. “If I was stressed out or anxious, I'd eat. Sad? Eat. Bored? Eat. Angry? Eat.”

Krista found comfort and solace in food—usually not consciously, but if she was uncomfortable with her emotions, she would find herself rummaging through the cupboards. She knew it wasn't healthy, but the decades-long habit proved incredibly difficult to break. And, unlike with alcohol or illegal substances, you can’t banish food from your house. Krista found that every time she tried to regain control with a diet, it failed after weeks. “Think about it,” she says. “If you're trying to steer away from thinking about food all the time, diets are probably the worst way to go about it, as it just forces you to constantly be thinking about what you’re eating.”

Diets and Fitness Programs Didn’t Work

“I think most efforts at weight loss fail because they simply try to browbeat someone into being thinner,” Krista points out. “I knew I needed to get a handle on my eating. But most advice out there boils down to ‘eat less.’ I wish it was that simple.”

Both the diet and fitness industries tend to focus on actions—eat less, work out more—instead of motivation, which is very much a personal thing. It’s not that people with an emotional eating habit don’t know what to do, they just can't force their brain to cooperate. And no amount of fancy fitness gear or restrictive dieting will make a lasting difference.

Krista knew her eating habits were unhealthy, but in moments of extreme stress, eating was almost a compulsion. The reasonable part of her brain would be almost silent while what she calls her “Anxious Monkey Brain” would make her hands reach for more chips.

But one phrase made a tiny crack in the pattern.

"When we eat to deal with bad things, the bad things don't go away—you're just temporarily dulling the emotion instead of dealing with it."

In the most recent of the many weight-loss groups she joined over the years, one of the leaders said, “When we eat to deal with bad things, the bad things don't go away—you're just temporarily dulling the emotion instead of dealing with it.”

The truth of that hit her hard. And it started the wheels turning.

“When I was stressed out about my work or upset about something, eating didn't do anything to help those problems. It might make me feel better for a few minutes but would end up adding even more stress from feeling out of control and helpless,” she says.

Change Came From an Unexpected Place

Another major change came when Krista inadvertently reconnected with her body and mind.

In early 2020, Krista started a daily yoga practice to help deal with some lingering lower back pain. She had tried yoga—and countless other types of exercise—before, but hadn’t stuck with it because it felt like yet another thing she should do to lose weight.

This time, she was exercising because her body needed it. And it was while bending and stretching on the mat that she started to notice something different:

“I started to process my negative emotions with movement and deep breathing instead of with Oreos,” she remembers, smiling. “Yoga became my quiet sanctuary in a world full of chaos. Even if I just did 10 minutes, having that time to clear the yammering in my mind, breathe, and refocus has gone such a long way toward helping me actually process my emotions instead of … well, eating them.”

As her body got stronger, more flexible, and balanced, she started to reconnect with it—and even love it a little bit more.

Learning to Slow Down and Process

Because of her yoga practice, when “Anxious Monkey Brain” kicked in, instead of eating, Krista started to ask herself:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What is my body doing?
  • Where is it holding tension?
  • Is my breath shallow?
  • Do I need to move, talk it out, or rest?

That opened up new possibilities for processing her emotions in a healthier way.

“Sometimes I just need to breathe more deeply. Sometimes I need to talk things out with my spouse or a friend. Sometimes I need to go for a walk or just cuddle my dog. Becoming more connected to my body and my emotions lets me more easily see what my body and mind actually need. The answer often isn't food,” Krista says.

Krista stopped trying to diet and started to recognize that it wasn’t even realistic for her. As a working wife and mother of two who isn’t the biggest fan of cooking, the task of thinking up "healthy" meals required more mental bandwidth than she had to spare. And the last thing an emotional eater needs is to be thinking about food all the time. Instead, Krista focused solely on listening to her body and recognizing a sense of satisfaction when she ate, which helped her stop at meals.

Today, Krista’s focus is on processing her emotions in healthier ways, only eating to satisfaction, and finding exercise that feels good. The result is a mind and body that are healthier, stronger, more flexible, and more resilient. (And, yes, she’s even lost weight, but it’s not her main goal anymore.)

She also credits the support of her employer and co-workers for creating an environment where she could continue to practice her new healthy habits.

A Supportive Work Environment Was Key

“The fact that I can even tell my coworkers and boss about my struggles is a huge help,” Krista says. “Emotional eating is so common, and people talk on a surface level about ‘eating our feelings.’ But for people who really struggle with emotional eating, being able to talk about it on a sincere, vulnerable level makes a big difference.”

This is something she sees as necessary across the board in every work environment.

“I'd love to see more emotional support from leadership, such as providing healthy snacks at work, physical wellness challenges, and other ways to set people up for success after they find their motivation,” she highlights.

"Emotional eating is so common, and people talk about it on a surface level about ‘eating our feelings.’ But for people who really struggle with emotional eating, being able to talk about it on a sincere, vulnerable level makes a big difference."

But to really address emotional eating, Krista would like to see companies dive much deeper within their wellness programs to address how employees tie food to their emotions. This includes programming and coaching services that both educate and support employees to process their emotions in healthier and productive ways. And she hopes that organizations make it a priority to encourage support groups where employees can be themselves, share their feelings, and identify their deep-seated patterns and triggers.

“I really don't think emotional eating is a food issue,” Krista says. “It's a mental health issue.”

And it’s a mental health issue that so many employees just like Krista struggle to overcome. When businesses take employee mental health seriously and provide easy access to reliable, effective support for their workforce, it can make a real difference.

If your company is looking for ways to adjust your wellness program to support your employees’ emotional eating habits, contact us. One of our expert consultants will work with you to identify the programs and services your employees need. At WellRight, we’re here to help.

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