I’m stressed and I grab a bar of chocolate. Or maybe two. Or maybe I’ll go and buy some more. I’m bored and I snack on nuts. A whole bowl of them. I’m sad and I need ice-cream. I’m angry and I just opened a bag of crisps. I’m disappointed and I’m gobbling down a pack of biscuits.
Does this sound familiar? That was also me a few years back and still is sometimes. It’s so common for people, especially women, to use food as a coping mechanism to deal with their emotions and that's normal. Many don’t even realise they do it, and if they do, they don’t know how to stop. At best and if they feel like their emotional eating is resulting in weight gain, they try to redeem the situation by seeing a dietitian who will put them on a strict diet. It is my personal opinion that restriction is not a solution. I have yet to meet a person who has fixed their emotional eating issue by adopting a diet imposed on them by somebody else.
I have always thought that as with any lifestyle issue, a change in one’s diet needs to make them feel fulfilled. If what you have on your plate looks boring and feels restrictive, you won’t be very happy eating it. You will most probably end up bingeing on something else later in the day, or in a few days’ time. And if you’re following a restrictive diet that you have no say in (i.e. measuring the number of teaspoons of oil you are allowed to put on your salad, or the number of almonds you’re allowed to eat) your weight loss efforts won’t last too long – which is how many dietitians make their money, but that’s a whole different topic.
I don’t want to turn this into a “how to lose weight” blog post. I will just say that food is only one part of the equation. Your sleep quality, stress levels, physical activity and mindset all play a role and yes, they can make you gain weight. This might be the topic of a future blog post. For now, let’s concentrate on how you can work on emotional eating.
Here are some things that I have found are helpful:
Don’t retreat from social support during times of emotional need. We often turn to food but what we’re craving is support from people. Who is part of your support system? Who can help you, listen to you, give you a hug or an encouraging word? Do you have such a person in your life? Did you used to have one but have lost touch? How can you get that back? Sometimes hearing someone’s voice -not chocolate- is comfort enough.
Try to identify and engage in activities that relieve your emotions. Some people like to listen to music. Others prefer doing something physical, like dancing. Others like to write in a journal. Whatever helps you express those emotions can be a ‘healthy distraction’ as I like to call it.
Learn to understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger. This is a big one. What cues does your body give you when you’re physically hungry? Contrary to physical hunger, emotional hunger comes abruptly, makes you crave only certain foods and you don’t feel full no matter how much you eat.
Stop using negative self-talking after bingeing episodes. So often we talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. What do you tell yourself after you eat too much of a certain food? Are you judgmental? Do you feel guilty? How is that helpful?
What you eat matters. The more nutrients you get out of your meals, the less you’re likely to get cravings and succumb to emotional eating. It’s not just a question of will-power. There are powerful hormones that are at play here. If you’re not eating balanced meals (for example if you don’t have any protein in the morning), your amazingly smart body will make you get energy from somewhere, very often from carbs.
How you eat matters: Minimise distractions while eating and try to eat mindfully. Many people treat eating as they might treat washing their laundry – just going through the motions of a necessary but dull task, hardly paying attention. Break the habits that drive autopilot eating. Instead, pay attention to your food. How does it look like? How does it feel and taste in your mouth? Put your fork down (or take your hand out of the chips bag) every now and then and take a breath. If you’re mindful then you’ll begin to notice how the foods you’re eating make you feel and make choices from a place of love and kindness rather than guilt and punishment.
How often you eat matters. If you’re starving and have nothing in the fridge or your office drawer, you might be tempted to buy those jelly beans from the vending machine. A small craving at 11am, or between lunch and dinner is perfectly normal. It can be calmed down with a balanced snack, such as a piece of dark chocolate and some almonds or other nuts. If you come back home at 19h00 starving and carrying all the stress from a day’s work, you’re less likely to make healthy choices and more vulnerable to emotional eating.
Finally, learn to sit with your feelings. Do you take time-out to realise how you are feeling at any given moment? If you aren’t connected to how you’re feeling, you might be connecting those feelings (instead of the feeling of hunger) with eating.
Many of us have lost touch with our bodies and have forgotten (or never learned) how to listen to them. Learning to distinguish the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger is a powerful first step. Starting to feel emotions instead of feeding them can make all the difference. I’m not saying this is an easy thing to address, but like many difficult endeavors, doing it together with someone else (me!) will be easier. Get in touch if any of what I wrote above resonates with you.
This website is for information purposes only. By providing the information contained herein we are not diagnosing, treating, curing, mitigating, or preventing any type of disease or medical condition. Before beginning any type of natural, integrative or conventional treatment regimen, it is advisable to seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.