I’ve had a good opportunity over the last month to really take a look at my eating habits. The first thing that I’ve noticed is the tendency to judge myself for my actions. Drinking this juice was a right action, eating that pizza was a wrong action. The mind wants to fit everything into a neat little compartment and it rationalizes that if I just follow the rules and eat everything in the good category, life will be swell. If not, then I’m just a bad person and my life will be hard and lonely.
But here’s the problem. I KNOW I should be eating all the good stuff, but I WANT to eat the bad stuff. Sound familiar? What’s coming into play here are the emotions and they trump the rational mind every time (What the mind doesn’t realize is that it’s actually fueling the emotions by judging the good and bad actions). When I’m dealing with an emotion that doesn’t feel good, I’m going to reach for the cookies. This is emotional eating and we all do it on some level, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Emotional eating, when not attended to leads to weight gain, depression, mental confusion, isolation, stress, and shame. In many cases these are the issues that lead us to eat in the first place. Reaching for high calorie, high fat, salty, or sweet foods fills the void and makes us feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t solve the original issue. Instead, we slip even further into the cycle of negative emotions and it’s a cycle that can seem difficult to break.
The first step in braking the cycle of emotional eating is to recognize when it’s happening. Let’s will look at some of the triggers that cause emotional eating and identify some tips to break the cycle and create new habits that will lead to healthy eating and positive problem solving.
Recognize Your Patterns
Are you physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Both hungers can be strong and both can make you reach for food. The difference is that emotional eating comes on very suddenly and it doesn’t come from your stomach, it’s in your head. Emotional hunger craves comfort foods and the discomfort convinces you that you absolutely NEED a particular food, like pizza or ice cream. The next time you’re about to eat something check with yourself to determine if you might be eating from an emotional place. Here are some common patterns of emotional eating:
1.) You don’t even realize you’re eating. Do you ever find yourself eating food just because it’s there? Are you confused how that bagel even ended up in your hand?. Here’s what often gets me. I’ll be walking through the house, on my way to do something when I suddenly take a detour and end up in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open. How did I get here? Or maybe you see an ad on television for food and suddenly get in your car to go buy that food. This is unconscious eating. There may be an unspecific gnawing feeling inside like you need something, you just don’t know what it is. Then the idea of food pops into your brain and you go straight for it.
2.) It’s hard for you to process difficult feelings. Having an argument with someone or being rejected or facing a looming deadline can cause stress and anxiety. It doesn’t feel good to be in this space so we look for ways to soothe it. You may begin to view food as your only available pleasure in times like these. While eating can silence these feelings, it is only temporary.
3.) You use food as a reward. When you were younger did your parents reward good behavior with treats? If you were feeling sad did they feed you a special meal to make you feel better? These can become habits that we carry over into adulthood. When we want to feel that same sense of pride or connection to a nostalgic moment, we may try to reproduce that feeling by eating those foods that made us feel good. Do you reward yourself with food?
4.) You’re too tired. Sometimes when I am too tired I get a little grumpy and bratty. I don’t want to eat healthy food, I want to eat something that is quick and easy (processed food). It can be hard when you are tired to discern whether or not you are actually physically hungry or just being emotional. And even if you are physically hungry, you may choose the unhealthy food when you are tired. If this happens to you often, then your emotions are driving the bus.
Tips for Overcoming Emotional Eating
It may take some time for you to become aware of your emotional eating habits. They have probably been with you a very long time. Here are some tips for becoming mindful of your eating and learning to eat for nutrition versus emotions.
1.) Keep a food journal. For two whole weeks, write down everything that you eat and next to that write down the reason you ate the food. Were you hungry, bored, sad, nervous? Be honest and don’t judge the behavior, merely take notes. After two weeks you can get a clearer picture of when and why you reach for food.
2.) Exercise. Do 20-30 minutes of exercise each day. It doesn’t matter if you walk, do yoga, or go to the gym. A regular exercise routine can improve your energy and your mood and reduce your cravings so you will be less likely to eat for emotional reasons.
3.) Drink lots of water. You need to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water per day (150 lbs = 75 ounces water). This may seem like a lot, but if you are hydrated you will have clearer thinking and reduced cravings.
4.) Take a 5 minute break. Every time you are about to eat something that is not a scheduled meal, stop. Walk away from the activity you were doing and ask yourself why you feel the need to eat. Then take a break. Go outside or do something completely the opposite of the activity you were doing for five minutes.
5.) Give yourself permission to feel. Allow those emotional feelings to come up rather than pushing them down with food. Identify your feelings and where they come from. They are valid and need to be heard. Have a cry, write your feelings down in a journal or call a friend who has agreed to be your emotional support. Give yourself a time limit for these feelings and thank them for showing you where the pain is hiding.
6.) Keep a regular schedule. Plan to wake, eat, and sleep at the same time every day. Your body will adapt to a regular schedule and you less likely be over tired and emotional.
Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for any of your feelings or behaviors. Do you have any tips for overcoming emotional eating? Share your thoughts in the comments below.