Today I want to talk about a very important topic – Emotional Eating. It’s a bit of a long blog but a topic that warrants the detail.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is the number one cause of excessive weight gain and means that we rely on eating to make ourselves feel better. Food becomes like an addiction – bingeing, night-time eating, grazing, snacking and gorging become the norm to deal with emotions. So, for people who eat emotionally, their biggest challenge is not food or weight, but feelings.
Now, I’m sure we have all had moments in our lives when things have been hectic and you are feeling tired, lonely or frustrated, or something may have gone wrong at work or home and you are feeling down or angry. Or you may even feel happy and excited about something. At these times, some of us may turn to food for comfort and tell ourselves things like “I deserve a treat!”, or “A tiny bit won’t hurt – it will make me feel better”.
But, when does emotional eating become a problem?
At its extreme, emotional eating can become quite problematic when you start to constantly believe that food is the answer to everything. You might accept that being overweight is the price you have to pay for the way you deal with your emotions. So, you believe that the goal of losing weight is unattainable. You believe there is no other alternative and food is the only thing to help you cope with your emotions. So you accept the way you are! BUT, no one is born an emotional eater. Emotional eating is a learned behaviour. And if you have learned to do it, either in an extreme form or from time to time, you can unlearn it! When you start to understand this you will increase your ability to relax about food and make changes.
How can we change emotional eating?
Changing emotional eating is about changing habits. We all eat, have feelings and have habits. A habit is a process which has become automated in that we may eat without thinking about it. And the more and more we do this, the more emotional eating becomes less effective to deal with our emotions. So we may end up eating more and more to chase a moment of comfort that becomes harder and harder to reach, so you may get more frustrated and feel worse about yourself and eat more to try to control these feelings. You might then get upset that you are overweight so you eat even more to suppress that feeling, and it becomes a vicious circle. Eating has become a habit to control emotions and the emotional comfort becomes a blur, whilst the eating happens mindlessly.
So dealing with emotions through food is not the answer – you need to understand the emotions and the messages that these emotions are sending to ourselves in order to overcome them in healthier ways, rather than overeating. You also need to understand your relationship with food and use mindfulness to eat more mindfully.
How to Eat more Mindfully
To eat more mindfully, you need to consider the following:
- Eat when you are genuinely hungry – when you get that unmistakable feeling that you are hungry, then eat, but you need to really tell the difference between real physical hunger and the triggers of emotional eating by being honest with yourself. Ask yourself each time you go to eat – are you really hungry? If so, have something that’s nutrient dense and will satisfy you more than something that is lower in nutrients, but higher in calories.
- Eat what your body wants – not feeling what you want to eat. For example, if you pass a picture of a hamburger or fast food shop and you suddenly think – I’m hungry – that’s a thought brought on by the picture or the shop, not genuine hunger. So don’t eat what you think you should eat or what other people want you to eat, eat what you know your body needs.
- Eat consciously and enjoy every mouthful – To do this you need to focus all your attention on eating, nothing else. Try not to watch TV, read a book, drive a car, walk down the street or make a phone call. Just eat, nothing else. Also eat slowly and chew each mouthful 20 times. If you focus your consciousness on every single mouthful, 3 things will happen:
- You will eat less because as you are taking the time to enjoy your food, you eat more slowly. This means you approach the feeling of fullness more quickly and you stop eating sooner. You don’t overeat, which often happens if you eat too quickly and without paying attention.
- You make new food choices because you have raised your awareness of what you are eating, your tastes will change and you will gravitate to foods with a greater variety of flavours and textures that are good for you.
- You will enjoy your food more!
A good example is chocolate – eat it slowly and let it melt in your mouth and really experience the chocolate in your mouth. You will find that you will eat less of it.
4. When you think you are full, stop eating! – slowing down your eating gives you more time to notice feeling full. If you overeat, you might have forgotten what that signal feels like because you are so used to ignoring it. You don’t stop until you feel stuffed or uncomfortable or have a pain in the stomach. So, stop eating as soon as you even think you are full. Wait a few minutes. If you genuinely feel hungry again after 5 minutes, then eat, if not, don’t.
So, if you struggle with emotional eating, consider the role of mindfulness in helping you change your habits. Tracking your food intake, why you eat and your emotions using a food diary can help make the unconscious conscious again. And if you feel like you need more help with managing your emotions, speak to a friend or counsellor.