Everyone eats for comfort now and then, whether you order dessert after a long week or reach for chocolate because of a stressful day. And from time-to-time, this is very normal. Food serves as a natural source of pleasure, but when you find yourself turning to food every time you get upset or when it becomes your sole source of pleasure, it may be a sign that you’re not coping with your emotions appropriately. While this isn’t ideal for your mental health, nor is it the healthiest solution, I want to make clear that you are not “bad” because of your desire to eat to feel better.
Certain foods have a calming, pleasurable effect on our brains and bodies (read more here on how food affects our brains), which is why so many people reach for chips and cookies to sooth themselves. However, it’s important that you become aware of the emotions that need to be dealt with, as well as the behaviors and habits that are driving your actions. If not, you’ll likely find yourself caught in a sticky cycle that no diet will be able to fix.
Shame and Guilt
Many people who are struggling with emotional eating beat themselves up and carry a great amount of shame and guilt as a result. And not only is this harmful for you, but it’s completely unnecessary treatment that can serve as fuel to keep you stuck. Because when you’re always putting yourself down, you’re much more likely to self-sabotage. I can say this because I lived it, and I understand this slippery slope.
I like to ask my clients, “If your friend overate, would you call him or her the horrible names you call yourself?”
Absolutely not, but when it comes to speaking to yourself that way, it’s perfectly okay, right? Nope. In order to break the patterns of emotional eating and get to the core of why it’s happening, you need self-compassion and gentle curiosity.
Emotional eating is actually a way in which we try to protect and comfort ourselves or provide a temporary distraction or escape from what’s really going on. However, because it remains to be seen as shameful, it can make dealing with it very painful (Read more here on how negative self talk impacts us). And while I have to add that we are responsible for the food choices we make, as well as taking the appropriate steps to deal with and overcome our personal issues, we need to be willing to be patient with ourselves and accept that it may take some time to work through this. And that’s okay.
How Do I know if I’m an Emotional Eater
Most of us who struggle with emotional eating habits are very aware that we do, but for some of you who have eaten this way for your whole life, you may not even be conscious of it. For this reason, it’s helpful to think about these statements:
- You often eat when you’re not physically hungry. There are a lot of triggers that influence our desire to eat, such as the smell of food, seeing an ad for a burger, feeling tired, habits, or even just talking about it. And if we find ourselves consistently reaching for food for any of these reasons, when there aren’t clear hunger signals, it can help clue us in on our emotional or habitual eating behaviors.
- You often don’t feel satisfied when you eat and tend to eat past a comfortable fullness. You may even find yourself going back for more food, or even eating just for the sake of eating, even when you don’t like the it.
- You rely on external cues to tell you stop eating instead of relying on your sense of fullness. For example, you eat all the ice cream until the container is empty, you stop eating when someone comes home, or you continue to eat from that pan of brownies until you create perfectly even lines (guilty!).
- You get strong cravings and turn to food because of feeling angry, sad, anxious, bored, etc.
- You eat on autopilot. There’s an unconscious component to eating for you where you may not even be enjoying the taste, let alone feel hungry, but you continue to eat, almost mechanically. Like watching a moving and mindlessly reaching into the bag of chips until they’re gone.
How to Overcome Emotional Eating
Emotional eating often gets started out of habit, and what do we know about habits? They can be broken. I mentioned earlier that it will require patience and compassion, but it will also take practice and a close awareness of the relationship between your emotions, habits, and desire to eat.
You don’t need to create a rule that says you cannot eat when you get emotional, as this will often backfire, but I do encourage you to explore what’s going on internally during the moments you’re triggered to eat. When you begin to do this, you create the awareness that’s essential to deal with your emotions and develop other ways to handle the situation, that don’t always involve food. Therefore, instead of defaulting to food when faced with a stressful situation, you’ll then have another option to help you cope; one that will likely offer long-term relief versus the fleeting alleviation from food
4 Steps to Help Overcome Emotional Eating
Step one: Awareness
Most of us have become so unconscious of our emotional and habitual eating that it happens automatically without our even being aware of it. Start by taking note of the times you eat when you’re stressed, angry, upset, etc. and all the details of the situation so that you can discover patterns. For example, do you hit the vending machine after a stressful meeting? Do you eat dessert every night? Each time you have a desire to go for food, ask yourself how physically hungry you are, and if there are clear hunger signals present. If not, get curious about why you want to eat.
Step Two: Tending to Our Emotions
If it’s discovered that we you’re eating to deal with an emotion, it’s essential that you understand what the emotion is so that you can allow it to be felt and dealt with in a healthy, productive manner. If you turn right to food to feel better, you allow that emotion to go unaddressed, and reinforce the habit of eating to cope. Remember, this takes time so it’s okay if you do eat, there’s no shame.
Step Three: Create Alternatives
When you want to substitute eating for something, you need to have a list of non-food alternatives that can take its place. So, whether you’re bored, stressed, angry, or sad, you need to discover other options that you can turn to to give you a pick-me-up, take your mind off the situation, or even distract you. For example, if you’re a stress eater, recognize ways to help burn it off without turning to food. Take a break and get away from the situation. Try taking a walk or do some deep breathing. If you’re feeling down, give yourself time for a good cry or call a friend. Once you develop alternatives, you can keep them in your back pocket to be able to pull out when the situation arises again. The key is to find out what you really need in these situations.
Step Four: Practice
The only way to break a habit, is to replace it with another one, and the more consistent and proactive you are with incorporating non-eating techniques, the more likely they are to stick. I’m not going to tell you that going from eating chocolate to deep breathing will be an easy switch, it won’t be. There’s a significant difference between the two, and it may get started with just eating less chocolate at first. It’s going to take patience, and yes, practice. However, I want to emphasize that even if it feels impossible, just start somewhere, because with persistence, you can put an end to, or even curb, the habit of always turning to food to cope.
Want to learn more? I’d love to help walk you through this process. Let’s talk!
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And if you live in Columbus, I’d love to meet you.