Let's Talk About Emotional Eating
We’ve all done it. We all have put food in our mouths when we’re not truly hungry. Have you ever habitually reached for that mid afternoon sugary pick me up, or that late night popcorn, or the mid morning Starbucks? We eat, not because we’re truly hungry and need to nourish our body, we eat out of habit, when other people are eating, when we’re sad, happy or even just plain bored.
We’ve all had a bad day then come home and searched for something to eat that will calm us down, take the edge off or just make us feel better... for a few moments anyways. Food and emotions are tightly interwoven. Our emotions can lead us to eating and eating can bring up emotions. Ever had that bowl of Ben & Jerry’s at 10pm and then found yourself knee deep in regret? You then proceed to beat yourself up with all sorts of diminishing thoughts OR just decide that since you crossed the line already, why not go in for seconds ...like it’s going to make you feel better. Eventually a few too many late night trips to the cookie jar can lead to added weight gain, poor digestion and even more negative self talk. It can be a vicious cycle.
Culturally, food and eating have been associated with celebration, with cultivating joy, connection and good times. My husband is a travel and food producer and journey’s around the globe to film and capture how food is integrated so deeply into different cultures. I get it, food brings people together, food makes people happy, and it also goes hand in hand with celebrating. This is all fine, when we’re enjoying the experience of it…. on occasion. However when we establish habits around eating all the time and at any time, that’s when we start to compromise our health over the long term. When the ritual of eating in this way becomes a go-to mechanism for managing our emotions or we start to use it as a “reward”, then it becomes a problem.
Food calms the nervous system in general. When emotions are too strong to handle, often food is the fastest route to dulling those intense feelings. Food takes us out of our heads and into our bodies, our senses (taste, smell, sight) Food tastes typically pleasing and enjoyable. When we’re taking in the smells, the tastes and the visuals of good food- we’re not as much in our mental being but more in the experience of our body and our senses. Ever stood in a bakery, gazing in the window at pans of fresh baked cupcakes, breads and sweets. As you’re taking in the warm sweet smells and pretty little objects in front of you- chances are you are not thinking about your to-do list or your taxes.
Where did we learn to use food as a reward? If you’re not a parent, observe those that are. If you’re anywhere at all around kids, you’ll notice that it’s trained into them at a young age that food is used as a reward ie: “If you can sit in the dentist chair and be a good boy, I’ll take you for ice cream.” It’s also an emotional silencer ie: “If you stop crying, I’ll give you a lollipop” or, “I need you to behave a certain way in this particular situation and if you do, we will go for pizza”. Parents do it all the time!! I’ve done it. Sometimes parents need a bargaining tool and food is an easy “go to”. On top of it, it’s rarely that you’ll hear a parent say, “If you can stuff your big feelings right now, I’ll give you an extra helping of broccoli tonight”.
We can go back to our own childhood and look at the messaging around “food = comfort”. It’s EVERYWHERE- television, commercials, magazines, billboards….. parent don’t have a hope in hell unless they’re aware of it. Massive food companies market to it- quick fix treats. If you’re older than 30- make peace with your folks, as they probably just didn’t even realize it was happening.
Ok...so let’s get back to the topic at hand. Here’s the thing..when we eat without being hungry a number of things happen. First of all, we put undue stress on our digestive system. Our body needs to feel both sides of the spectrum- hunger and satiation. Unfortunately many of us have a hard time sitting with the feeling of hunger. It can tap into residual issues of “not having/being enough”, or fear of literally starving. Did you have to compete for food with your siblings? Did you hear your parents fight regularly over the grocery bills? Was there feelings of lack around food? Were you forced to clean your plate and told you were ungrateful if you didn’t?
When we stress our digestive system and don’t allow our body to be in “empty” mode- it can lead to weight gain. Think of your stomach like a stretchy gas tank. If you keep putting food in, and more food in, your body doesn’t have a chance to digest it all. It then builds up in your system as undigested food, or AMA- literally junk in the trunk. When this happens, we experience low energy, blood sugar issues, mood swings and an inability for our body to burn fat and regulate to it’s optimal weight. As mentioned earlier, there’s also emotional kickback. When we’re feeling low energy, heavy, dis- eased and dull, our mind space is not one of positivity, potential and happiness. Instead, we end up in a negative feedback loop. If we’re feeling low, we want to feel better, so we eat. It’s not a pretty picture.
Emotional eating is simply our bodies’ way of protecting itself, by making us feel better. When we’re aware of the negative impact on our health, our weight, our system and our lives, especially over the long term, we can begin to make better choices. First step, is noticing when you are eating for distraction, comfort or out of habit, instead of for nourishment and fuel.
Here are two ways that can help short circuit the habit of emotional eating:
1. Literally short circuit or quick fix it.
2. Establish longer term solutions.
- SHORT CIRCUIT OR QUICK FIX IT- One very effective way to short circuit food cravings, or other cravings, is to take a moment of pause, take a deep breath and soften, let go of the inner tension as you are now in choice mode. If you’ve been on autopilot your entire life, the realization that you have a choice can feel uneasy at first. Notice what comes up for you. What are you thinking with your hand elbow deep in the cookie jar? Once you can create some space around what’s actually happening, than you can ask yourself the hard questions. Do I really want this? Do I really want to feel the after effects of eating this? What do I think will be better if I eat this? I’m sure you can come up with more. When we do this we presence what’s REALLY going on? What am I REALLY hungry for? If you want to make change in your life it’s important to face this stuff head on to eventually get to the other side.
If we’re eating when we’re not truly hungry and ready to refuel, then it’s emotional eating. What is the emotion that is underlying it all? We may crave sweets because perhaps we’re missing the sweetness in our lives in other places? Is it comfort, because we’re uncomfortable in our lives some way or not fulfilled? Is it for grounding, because we feel unstable or our life feels rocky in some way? Is it adventure- perhaps we need more of that. It could be anything- dig deep, get curious. If you can name it, you can tame it. Once we can step back and create some space around the feeling, then from that place, we can make a conscious, on- purpose choice.
#2 ESTABLISH LONGER TERM SOLUTIONS- I highly recommend option #2. This option is inclusive of option #1 and then some.
-GENERAL LIFESTYLE- When we choose, to choose a healthier lifestyle, and work towards finding balance in our lives and our day to day to experience, we then have the tools to manage the ups and downs of life much better. When we can see that our habits make up who we are and who we are becoming, we realize that our less-than better habits are in our control. We get to create who we are becoming by the habits we choose. It’s through self -care, better nourishment, exercise, meditation and sleep that we can orient ourselves towards balance and ease and away from stress and dis-ease.
-MEDITATION teaches us to become the witness/ observer of our thoughts, and emotions and not get wrapped up in them. It teaches us that who we truly are, our essence, our spirit is NOT our thoughts or who WE THINK WE ARE. Meditation teaches us that we can literally place ourselves behind the activity of the monkey mind and simply observe the experience or emotion we’re going through. In doing so, we gain a broader perspective, so that we can literally go in through the back door and get to the deeper needs that we’re avoiding, or the holes we’re trying to fill with food, shopping, attention seeking, addiction….etc.. Once we become aware of our habits and patterns, then we can begin to pull them apart and address their root cause. Meditation has been proven over and over to be one of the best ways to manage stress, anxiety and depression. At its essence, meditation is preventative medicine for so many common, and not so common conditions, and ailments.
-MINDFUL EATING- Eating 3 meals a day without snacking helps to regulate blood sugar and aids in proper digestion. Giving your body 3-4 hours between breakfast and lunch, and then lunch and dinner, allows our body to digest fully. Leaving 13 hours minimum, to fast between dinner and breakfast, allows our body to do it’s natural job during the hours of 10pm -2am when PITTA energy is dominant. This is the ideal time for detoxification, healing and the deepest rest of your night.
When we are nourished on a deep level and eating intentionally, we have less tolerance or desire for overeating, or eating when we’re not truly hungry. We can create space to take a moment, pause and make a better choice based on what our body REALLY needs. Making sure that we are satisfying our 6 tastes is also important so that we are receiving a variety of tastes that will satiate our bodies’ needs. When we do this, we are way less likely to find ourselves desperately searching for that “something” to satisfy the craving that we don’t really understand.
The most important thing with emotional eating is to recognize it, get curious and get to the bottom of it. It takes time, effort and good reasons to want to nip this one in the bud. This is one habit with long term effects that none of us benefit from.
Just practice taking one intentional bite at a time.