[Guest Post by Michelle Robinson]
Do you find yourself reaching for food when you feel stressed, lonely, angry or sad even though you’re not hungry?
If so, there is a strong chance emotional eating is sabotaging your weight loss goals.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is the practice of consuming food- often comfort or snack food- even though you are not actually hungry because you are responding to the way you are feeling about some issue in your life.
Instead of eating nutritious food that is fuel for their body, a person who is an emotional eater chooses high carbohydrate, sweet or fatty food that makes them ‘feel good’.
These habits often stem from childhood, when food was used as a reward or a punishment.
- A child who was rewarded with junk food for good behavior may grow into an adult who expects junk food as a natural daily reward.
- A child who was soothed with chocolate may grow into an adult who uses confectionery as the ‘feel better’ solution for any emotional problem.
- A child who was punished if they did not eat all their vegetables may exercise their right not to eat nutritious, healthy foods as an adult.
Adults who eat in response to stress and feelings instead of hunger usually do so without understanding why. This is because they are following old patterns of belief and behavior from their childhood. Such outdated responses do not help them create the life, health or shape they want.
Instead of taking positive steps to address life’s challenges, emotional eaters stuff their pain down with food or use food as a pacifier so they feel numb rather than emotionally raw.
Emotional eating leads to yo-yo dieting and repetitive cycles of weight gain and guilt since the guilt felt about weight gained actually sponsors another round of uncontrolled emotional eating
Are you an emotional eater?
If you recognize that you are an emotional eater- even a binge-eater- you are not alone. Approximately one-third of the population is obese, with an equal proportion falling within the overweight category.
It is estimated that up to 75% of people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight have emotional eating as a contributing cause.
The good news is you do not have to resign yourself to being trapped in the emotional eating cycle forever.
You can take control of your life and learn how to redevelop your relationship with food so that you maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle.
Breaking the Emotional Eating Cycle
The first step is to realize that food cannot satisfy your emotions; it is fuel for your body, and like your car, your body deserves healthy, clean fuel that allows it to run efficiently.
Next, you need to address the emotional triggers that cause you to eat unnecessarily.
When you think about it logically, food is not the right response to a feeling. A feeling deserves a response that deals with whatever issue generates the feeling in the first place.
Food cannot take away your boredom, loneliness, frustration, anger or low self- esteem.
- A person who is bored needs to involve themselves in something they enjoy. They need to engage more in their life.
- A person who is frustrated needs to resolve the source of that frustration.
- A person who is lonely needs to seek companionship.
- A person who is unhappy with himself or herself needs to work on self-acceptance so that they like themselves more.
Taking positive steps to make your life more enjoyable, so you feel better about yourself and others, is the right response to an emotional problem.
Eating your feelings only adds to your problems by perpetuating excess weight, unresolved emotions, and guilt.
What can you do to stop emotional eating?
Becoming aware that you are stuffing feelings down with food or using food to soothe you when you are not hungry, is the first step towards change.
Here are some strategies you can follow to get on top of emotional eating and end your self-sabotage.
Ending Emotional Eating Strategies
1. Make a list of acceptable options to replace eating when you experience emotional triggers.
Consider alternatives that are a good match for the feeling. For example, if you feel bored, you will do something that interests you. If you feel lonely, you will phone a friend. Display this list of options where it is always easy to read.
2. Be mindful.
Every time you are about to eat, stop and ask yourself whether you are truly hungry. Listen to your stomach and don’t give in to comfort eating.
If you are not hungry, identify whether an emotional trigger is trying to trick you into eating when you don’t need to.
If you identify the emotion, choose options from your acceptable list (above) and remind yourself that food is not an antidote to a feeling.
3. Seek help if you need to release feelings that trouble you.
Realize that as an adult, the past is the past, and it is time to let unhelpful hurts go. Talk to a therapist if you are troubled by deep feelings that prevent you from enjoying your life as a healthy, independent adult.
4. Exercise and movement, as well as drinking plenty of fresh water, assist weight loss.
Exercise boosts your feel-good hormones and may help you work unhelpful feelings through your body.
Drinking water flushes toxins out of your system and assists your brain in thinking clearly, hence making choices that support your weight loss.
5. Think about detours, not derailments.
Remember that it is your long term plan that counts. Any deviation from your healthy nutritional plan is just a detour. There are no derailments.
Visualize the goals you want to achieve and rehearse them often in your mind. Small setbacks are no big deal. That’s just life. It is the consistency that counts.
Need help with cravings for junk food?
Cravings for the old junk food you used to eat may present in a variety of ways.
You may experience the feeling of wanting to eat junk food or drink unhealthy beverages as sensations in your body.
You might feel a need to consume sugary, starchy or fatty foods as though your body is begging you to do it. Do not be fooled.
Those unpleasant feelings and sensations are no more than that old cravings attempts to retain control.
Those sensations do not come from the real you because the real you craves only a healthy slim body, nutritious foods and the opportunity to live to a fit and active old age.
Your mind and body are stronger than the fading threats of any old cravings.
You may also experience thoughts like
‘I must eat that cake now!’
‘One chocolate won’t matter.”
I’ll still lose weight.’
These thoughts may go round and round in your mind.
Like your feelings and sensations, those thoughts are simply your old habit’s attempt to regain control.
You are much stronger than that habit because it no longer represents who you are.
Those thoughts will fade away and be replaced with positive, helpful thoughts soon. Stay strong.
Do not feel alarmed or anxious if you feel agitated, cranky or shaky during withdrawal from food cravings. Remember these old emotional responses will soon fade away.
Choose at least three strategies from your list, especially ones that move your body, when you feel restless or agitated.
Burning off the stress chemicals created by cravings with healthy exercise, and shaking or stamping stress out of your body are good options.
Practice taking a drink from a water bottle and a breath of air rather than giving in. Your new habits need reinforcement to become automatic.
Emotional Eating and Weight Loss Wrap Up
If you recognize yourself as an emotional eater, take heart.
Acknowledging the source of your feelings and making decisions to deal with them are your first steps to redefining your relationship with food.
Mindfulness is the key- focus on the goal you want, and remain aware of the choices you make. Feelings require an emotional response, not food. When you remember that fuel is primarily nutrition and fuel for your body, you won’t go wrong.
Before you eat comfort food, ask yourself this simple question: ‘Would I be willing to offer this food to a pet I love, for their dinner?’
If the answer is ‘No’, then you may be still feeding yourself junk instead of the self- respect you deserve.
Michelle Robinson has a B Counseling and is a weight loss coach and motivator with years of experience helping people reach and maintain the weight they desire.
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.