Why do we eat? On the one hand, that’s an easy question. We eat to live. We consume fuel to have energy, vitality and to keep our bodies running smoothly.
But do we always eat to live?
Sometimes we might eat for joy – to simply enjoy the food we are consuming. It’s appropriate to enjoy your food!
But what about when you are eating to feed feelings? You eat when you are happy to celebrate. You reward yourself with food because you feel you are deserving of it. You eat when you are bored or sad or stressed. You eat to comfort yourself. You eat out of a need for love. You eat to meet needs that are unmet.
Whether you are happy or sad if you are eating to address a feeling you are emotionally eating. Eating to feed feelings is a common challenge for all us that left unchecked can fill us with shame and sabotage our efforts to stay healthy and well.
In some respects, emotional eating makes sense. We learned as infants that our mother’s breast milk equaled comfort, soothing and love. As we got older we got dessert when we finished our meal. A cookie when we got an A on our report card. Or ice cream as a treat when we had a bad day.
So the concept that food is love is deeply ingrained in our sub-conscious and not surprising then that we turn to food to manage strong emotions and discomfort.
At the same time we live in a world where stress is commonplace. Almost daily we are bathing in stress hormones. Cortisol causes fluctuations in blood sugar and cravings for less optimal foods containing sugar, salt and fat. Stress can put us on an emotional rollercoaster where we are left managing highs and lows. It’s no wonder that sometimes we use food to cope.
But how can we get off the rollercoaster and put an end to emotional eating? Here are three tips to help banish emotional eating forever:
Tap Into Your Body Wisdom
Here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating we stress the importance of becoming the expert of your hunger and fullness cues. The field of Mind Body Nutrition teaches us that we can connect with our body and tap into its wisdom to begin to differentiate between true hunger and emotional hunger.
If you have just eaten a couple hours prior and consumed a nutrient dense snack or a meal of lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbs and fiber chances are you are not exhibiting signs of true hunger. Instead, you may be feeding a feeling.
Be sure to differentiate between the sensation of hunger and the feeling of hunger. A sensation of hunger is a true hunger – you have sensations in your body that alert your brain to the need for food. Sensations of early hunger may include lightness or rumble in the belly or a slight heaviness in the head.
A feeling of hunger starts in the brain as a feeling and alerts the body to the need for something. We may mistake a feeling as a need for food but no amount of food will ever fill an emotional hunger. The only way to resolve a feeling is to understand and process the emotion.
This week take some time to observe your body. Tap into your unique body wisdom for information regarding what you need. Are you hungry? Are you full? Or do you need some tender self-care to soothe and comfort some strong feelings.
Manage Your Stress
As you work to understand your body wisdom it’s important to recognize the power of slowing down.
Stress can wreak havoc on your ability to differentiate between true hunger and emotional hunger. By filling you with stress hormones it puts the body on high alert and causes cravings for less optimal foods. Eating becomes a habit to comfort and manage the discomfort.
This week tap into the relaxation response by slowing down. Begin to explore other options for managing stress that do not include food. Check out yoga, meditation or try deep breathing. Take a bath, drink some tea or take a walk with a friend.
Seeking out alternatives to food to manage stress may require some experimentation. Be the expert of you and cultivate techniques that work for you!
At the same time begin to practice mindful eating. Sit at a table when you eat. Cultivate the power of presence. Take a few deep breaths before beginning your meal to bring you back to your plate. Turn off the television and avoid distractions. Do not eat in your car or on the run. Taste and enjoy your food and observe how the power of presence fills you up both physically and emotionally.
Cultivate Curiosity, Not Judgment
The field of Dynamic Eating Psychology teaches us that the single best strategy for beginning to let go of emotional eating is to use it as a learning opportunity. If you find yourself sitting with a bag of chips after an argument with your husband, do not despair. Using food to manage feelings is not the worst thing you could be doing in this instance! Time to let it go rather than wallowing in shame and pain.
Instead of being hard on yourself try being curious about your behavior. What was happening before you turned to food? What were your thoughts? How were you feeling? Use your actions with food as a window into your soul. Gather information about the incident without judgment and use the data to help you avoid a similar incident in the future.
Above all, forgive yourself. Changing a long-standing habit of relying on food to manage feelings takes time. If you have a setback, simply move on. Let it roll off your back. By using curiosity rather than judgment you can begin to have a better understanding of your actions and a greater chance of creating new habits to manage feelings. And watch as you evolve as a person and an eater!
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to check out our FREE information-packed video series, The Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough, you can sign up for it HERE. It’s a great way to get a better sense of the work we do here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. If you’re inspired by this work and want to learn about how you can become certified as an Eating Psychology Coach, please go HERE to learn more. And if you’re interested in working on your own personal relationship with food, check out our breakthrough 8-week program designed for the public, Transform Your Relationship with Food, HERE.