(contributed by Linda Anegawa, MD, FACP)
We all eat emotionally to some degree, and it’s not necessarily pathological.
Soothing ourselves with treats has roots in childhood. Anyone remember a parent handing you a lollipop after you fell off your bike and scraped your knee? Or making you soup when you were sick? These associations can become firmly rooted for life. After all, certain foods are known as “comfort foods” for a reason.
For some of us, our tendency to reach for snacks whenever we hit a rough patch becomes a concern. This can occur after a string of difficulties, or a personal trauma. In addition, even chronic low-level exposure to stress in our normal daily lives can lead to more snacking than normal. Over time, we may find ourselves reaching almost unconsciously for food in response to any unpleasantness at all. Food distracts us from feeling the pain, the sadness, the loneliness, the irritability, the boredom. One patient told me, “food filled the empty place inside me” following the death of her mother. The emotional eating can then become more and more entrenched over time.
Whatever the reason for over-indulging, the end result is often similar.
Any soothing effect of food is only temporary, and the negative emotions/stressors are still there for us to face. Plus we begin to feel guilty or ashamed about setting back our health goals, and then we beat ourselves up. This is how emotional eating sets us up in a vicious cycle.
Here are some ways to begin to break free:
(1) Start a journal. You may wish to try tracking what you eat – tracking can increase awareness of both your physical hunger and non-hunger eating triggers. There are some great apps for this, or even a simple notebook will do. Tracking can give us a “hunger reality check”. For example, if you had a full meal 1 hour ago, it’s highly likely that the hunger you have is more emotional than physical.
(2) Practice Mindfulness. Giving yourself the opportunity to pause for even 5 seconds prior to eating is important. Try to take one slow deep inhale and exhale before taking a bite. Notice physical and mental sensations. Keep breathing slowly as you eat, chewing each bite of food at least 10 times. Notice how your body feels as your stomach becomes more full with each swallow of food.
(3) Make it easier on yourself. Get rid of the foods that lead you astray – don’t buy trigger foods such as sweet or salty snacks, especially from big-box stores that sell them in giant bags. Nothing is a bargain if it makes you feel angry at yourself for eating it!
(4) Set regular mealtimes. Due to our hectic lifestyles and tendency to multi task, we rarely sit down to just eat and do nothing else. This can worsen mindless and emotional eating. Even committing 15 minutes for a lunch break for example is far better than wolfing down something from the drive-thru while on errands.
(5) Focus on FATS, proteins, and greens – these help us to feel more physically full so the temptation to graze and snack won’t be as strong. A large tossed salad with a protein of choice and olive oil dressing makes a great lunch, and it’s quick and easy to prepare.
(6) Watch for boredom. When that restlessness starts to settle in, keep a list on your phone of things to do to distract yourself so you won’t eat. Take a quick 10 minute walk, or call a friend, paint your nails, take a shower, etc. – ANYTHING to avoid snacking when you really don’t want to.
(7) Know when to get help. Consider therapy to help learn better coping skills or to help handle severe stress. A trained psychotherapist can also screen you for an eating disorder such as Binge Eating or Night Eating Disorder. Even if you don’t have one of these though, the road to lifestyle change can be filled with speedbumps and setbacks, so highly qualified support can be critical for your long term success.
For support and resources right now, the National Eating Disorders Association provides trained helpline volunteers that you can call or text. For community support, join our private Facebook group where others who have struggled with emotional eating challenges provide support and encouragement based on their personal health journeys. CLICK HERE for a comprehensive guide to the signs of an eating disorder, common treatments, etc.
You aren’t alone in this struggle, reach out today!