Today I’d like to talk about something that I think doesn’t get talked about enough: emotional eating. I don’t know if it doesn’t get talked about much because people are unaware of how common it is or if it’s because there’s just so much shame around our eating habits on the whole. Maybe you are someone who has never turned to food for an emotional reason, if that’s the case, good for you! But there’s a whole lot of people who struggle with it regularly.
I think a huge part of the obesity epidemic our nation is facing is caused in part by how poorly we deal with our emotions. Instead of turning to a friend to talk to or going for a walk, we stuff those uncomfortable feelings down with food (ice cream? chips? what’s your poison?). But like a suitcase that’s been overstuffed on each successive trip, eventually the seams are going to give and your dirty laundry is going to be all over the conveyor belt. Good luck getting your belongings back in a suitcase that has fallen apart. In other words, you can only ignore feelings for so long before they will demand that they be dealt with. Shit doesn’t fix itself as much as we hope and pray it will. It’s much wiser to deal with things before they get out of control.
If this is you, let me start off by telling you that you are not alone. Look around at the women in your life – I guarantee you that at least one of the women you love also struggles with their relationship with food. It might be someone who is overweight or it might be someone who is not. It might be someone you don’t even suspect. For years, I convinced myself (and others) that I was overweight because “of my stocky Irish genes” or because “I just eat too much healthy food”. I don’t doubt that family history has something to do with my size but pretty early on I learned to reach for food when something didn’t feel right to the point where I remember laying in bed as a kid and saying my nightly prayers and praying to the virgin Mary (I figured as a woman she’d understand my plight more than God or Jesus) to help me lose weight. I specifically remember praying that for every calorie I ate, I would lose two. So grateful she didn’t answer that prayer, I didn’t think that one through mathematically! But how sad that a little kid, who, looking back wasn’t even that overweight (yet) already knew about calories and that being heavy was a bad thing.
Praying for weight loss was just the start of it. Bad day at school? Hand in the cookie jar, repeatedly. Lonely night at home? Let’s eat a whole sleeve of crackers and a block of cheddar cheese. I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor where I knocked myself for my size before anyone else could. I had to make sure everyone around me knew that I knew I was fat, lest they think I was in the dark about it. It hurt less to make fun of myself than it would for others to make fun of me. My issues with food and uncomfortableness with my size got so bad at times that I remember joking about how I wished I was bulimic when I was in college. Sure, I had the bingeing thing down pat, I just didn’t purge, at least not successfully. I know there were a few occasions when I tried. Thankfully I failed and it didn’t continue. No matter what phase my eating issues were in (and there have been many many over the years), two things were consistent: I loved to give the idea that I didn’t eat that much, by ordering a salad when going out to eat with other people or claiming that I ate already so that other people didn’t see how much I really ate. And the other thing was that I constantly was distraught about my size and my confidence was shot. I may have acted confident on the outside (I was often the life of the party!) but inside I was screaming. I hated myself for being fat. I felt like that was all I was and that was all anyone could see of me and so to deal with the shame I felt around it, for many years I just ate more. At the time, that seemed the only option.
I got tired of falling back into the same self-destructive patterns every time life wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to so I’ve worked really hard at incorporating the strategies below into my life. I’m in a much better place these days (the stories above are decades old) and I’ve tried every possible route for having a healthy relationship with food. I finally feel like I’m in a place where I can enjoy food without it taking over my life. Sure, occasionally I still struggle with periods of using food to deal with an emotion (because I’m human and have faults) but it’s infrequent and when it does happen, it’s on a minor scale. I’ll take a minor trip up over what I was doing before, any day!
Below are some seriously powerful tips for halting an emotional eating spiral. Many of these won’t be a surprise – I’m sure you’ve heard some of them before but these are the things that have helped me break my decades old habits that were impacting my health, my mood and my life and they’ve become invaluable to me. I hope a few of them can help you do the same.
How to Put the Brakes on Emotional Eating:
1. Figure out what your trigger foods are and stop eating them (at least for a little while). Don’t buy them for yourself and don’t buy them for someone else in your household.
This is not a popular thing to suggest. One one hand, emotional eaters and chronic dieters need less rules about eating – not more – but if you really lose all control when you eat certain foods . . .and can’t enjoy the food without feeling both physically and emotionally awful, why do we want to tell people they can keep it in their lives? I recommend at least taking trigger foods out of your diet for a little while (you may be able to return to them in some form down the road!). Sometimes we are surprised by how much we enjoy not eating these foods once we’re not clouded by them anymore.
I know this is probably the hardest thing to do (and that is why I’m starting with it). If you are willing to walk away from your triggers, you will be well supported by the other tips below. If you’re not, well, you might not be ready to change your ways. If you have fears around not eating your trigger foods, how do you think they are serving you? What are you getting from that particular food that you can’t get elsewhere?
We think that we can keep the food in the house but just not eat it. It doesn’t work that way for most of us. If it’s truly a trigger food for you, you will eventually eat it and start the cycle over again. If your trigger is soda or ice cream and you feel like you can’t not have it in the house because it’s not fair to your kids – that’s total BS. Your kids don’t need ice cream and they don’t need soda. There are plenty of other foods to enjoy that don’t need to set you up for self-sabotage. I don’t care what the food is – there is another option. If it’s milk and you’re worried about calcium? Load up on beans and greens. You’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.
My triggers are primarily cheese and wheat! Whenever I binged in the past, it was usually on something like cheese and crackers, doritos, or white cheddar cheez-its. But over time, I also realized that anytime I had a lot of bread, cheese or pasta, I usually found myself over eating the next day (or sometimes for several days) so now I’m about 90% dairy free and completely wheat free except for the odd occasion. The times I give in and have a piece of bread or some cheese? I notice it in my mood and my cravings the next few days and have to work really hard to keep myself from sabotaging all the hard work I’ve done. It’s a lot less work for me to just not eat them in the first place and I know it’s hard to believe but I sincerely don’t miss them and I don’t feel deprived. At all! I’ll tell you how and why in another post but it has a lot to do with #4 on this list. (I should also mention that I’ve since noticed certain health issues have been reduced since removing these foods from my life – my asthma, rosacea and constipation have been lessened!)
Some people can take a break from their triggering foods and return to them at a later date -these foods will have less of a hold on them over time. Others can’t and will need to not eat them going forward. Only you know if that is right for you!
2. Take a few deep breaths before eating to center yourself. Take a minute to relax and slow down your mind and body before eating.
Be present when you eat. I know we’re all so busy and life is rushed today but if we eat at the same pace that we live our lives, we don’t get to “enjoy” our food and food is meant to be enjoyed! If you take a moment to check in with your body and your mind before you eat, you are more likely to enjoy the meal. And when you truly enjoy your food, you won’t feel deprived and that makes a massive difference in whether or not you’ll find yourself going overboard later.
3. Make eating the sole activity you do whenever you do it. Do not read while eating. Don’t watch TV. Don’t go on your phone or laptop. Don’t write your to do list. Don’t talk on the phone or drive. Focus on the meal in front of you.
Take it in with all of your senses. Does it look appetizing? How does it smell? Notice the textures in your mouth. Is the food crunchy or soft? Pretend you are studying it for an exam you will have later. Notice the details.
Eating this way helps your brain receive signals that let it know when you’ve had enough to eat. It also helps you produce adequate saliva which is an important part of digestion. If you are consumed by other activities while eating your body and brain don’t communicate as well leading your body to forget that it’s eaten and it will be begging for food all day (like my cat). I’m not kidding!
Have you ever been driving only to reach your destination and have no recollection of part of your drive because you were thinking deeply about something? It’s very similar. Your brain won’t have a memory of the meal if you distract it with other tasks.
This is also a tough rule to implement and follow. You will have a lot of urges to just give in and go back to whatever old habits you had while eating. I realize that sometimes we can’t help but eat on the go, but those times should be a last resort. You can make an effort the rest of the time. You may find you have a lot of resistance towards changing these habits. I totally get it! I used to zone out on my laptop while plowing my way through a box of white cheddar cheez-its. Why? Because I didn’t want to feel whatever I was feeling and being on the computer distracted me. It also distracted me from tasting or noticing the food I was eating, which meant that despite feeling incredibly full and gross, my urges to eat would continue. I never got full enjoyment of the food I was eating. If you feel a lot of resistance to making meal time only about eating, then ask yourself why? Why do you feel you need to do something else while eating? Why is eating not enough?
4. Eat. Stop starving yourself. Stop restricting. Stop “dieting”.
I know it sounds counterintuitive if you are struggling with a bingeing or emotional eating issue to just allow yourself to eat but many people who find themselves bingeing out of control are restricting calories or strictly controlling how much they eat each day. Our bodies like balance and they’re keeping track. Geneen Roth has said “For every diet there is an equal or greater binge” and I’ve found that she’s completely right. If you’re terrified of eating too much fat and spend your days eating fat free or low fat foods, when you do go over the rails, you can bet it will be on a substance that contains fat. If you restrict the amount of calories you eat for a long time, the urge to eat everything in sight will eventually take over you and willpower will only take you so far. You’ll end up eating far more than you would have if you just allowed yourself to eat food to begin with.
People who are naturally slender eat when they are hungry and they stop when they’ve had enough. Some days they may eat a lot and other days not so much. It all balances out. The fear of losing control and gaining weight goes away as you realize that your body is not out to betray you. It’s on your side. If you feed it appropriately and without judgement, it will reward you with energy, a stable mood and a waistband that doesn’t fluctuate massively.
All this being said, I think it’s important to focus on whole foods when trying to stop destructive eating patterns like this. It would be irresponsible to just suggest that bingers eat more to reduce binges – there’s more to that. What you eat matters. If you’re eating a lot of processed food, it’s time to try to reduce your dependence on them. Support your body by giving it high quality sources of fat, protein and carbohydrates so that you will feel satisfied, energized and sated. Avoid foods that spike blood sugar (sugar, refined flour, most baked goods etc) and if you do eat them, pair with protein to reduce the effect. I love pairing nourishing whole foods together, like sweet potatoes with coconut oil and hemp seeds, homemade chicken salad lettuce wraps or an avocado stuffed with black japonica rice, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds etc.
When you feed yourself fully, you feed your body and soul and you will feel and see the difference.
5. Figure out what you are feeling. What don’t you want to feel? What is too uncomfortable to acknowledge? What do you believe to be true about yourself?
Most emotional eating episodes are tied to the avoidance or suppression of a feeling or a form of punishment (due to a feeling). When you get the urge to go crazy on whatever food has your attention right now, ask yourself: What am I feeling in this moment? Are you sad, angry, frustrated, bored, lonely, ashamed? Just ask, label it (I’m not a fan of labels generally but here it’s helpful) and sit with the feeling for 10 minutes, taking deep breaths. You don’t need to do anything with the feeling yet but just let it be. After 10 minutes, is the urge to eat still there? It might be, but it also may be reduced.
This takes practice. Often bingers say they don’t feel anything when they want to eat or are eating but that is usually because they’ve used the activity to teach themselves to feel numb. You can’t push feelings away for months or years and then expect they’ll make themselves known to you the first time you try to pay attention to them. Keep asking questions of yourself. It will take work, many conversations with yourself, maybe some journaling and talking with others. The more you acknowledge and encourage those feelings to be felt, the more you will be able to feel them and ultimately the less you’ll need to eat what you don’t want to feel. Those feelings are coming from somewhere and they deserve to be felt, to be acknowledged.
Once you know what you are feeling and can let it join you for a bit, you take some of its power away because now you have an opportunity to deal with it. Is what you are feeling that is the issue? Or is it that you don’t know how to fix something, want to avoid something etc? Is there something you are avoiding (unhappiness in a job, a large project, a difficult conversation?) that is causing you stress? Is there a story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are that is holding you down? What can you do about it? Can you call a friend who will listen to you? Put it all down on paper in a journal? Go for a walk and think it over? Create a strategy to change the things that are stifling you from living the life you deserve? You know the answers already, you just need to ask the questions.
6. Forgive your slip ups, love yourself & let go of the need to be perfect. No one is perfect and you shouldn’t feel like you need to be either!
Many women I talk to who have an issue with emotional eating, talk about how much worse they feel after a binge or emotional eating episode. They beat themselves up. They do and say hurtful things about themselves. They believe they are bad people for not being able to control their eating. They feel disgusted with themselves. They feel like everyone else around them must have it easier because they aren’t consumed with thinking about food. They also talk about how feeling so badly about themselves makes it easier for a bad eating episode to happen. If you are disgusted with yourself, eating a bunch of stuff that makes you feel even worse doesn’t seem like that big of a deal because the feelings (disgust, shame, anger) that come with it are familiar.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve convinced ourselves that eating and loving ourselves & our bodies is hard and has to be a constant struggle. We think we need to be perfect or we’re a failure. It doesn’t have to be like that. When you eat to nourish yourself instead of punish, reward or control, you will eat enough but not too much and feel satisfied. When we set up these parameters for ourselves – only this many calories, only low-fat, eat less than those around us etc, we’re planning out a trip that takes us straight to emotional eating.
When these negative thoughts pop up, think “cancel that”. Practice saying and thinking good things about yourself. What did you do well today? What are you grateful for? Acknowledging the good things about yourself and about your day/life are far more important to your overall well-being than knocking yourself down. No one ever got where they wanted to be by being brutal to themselves and even people who have succeeded at the greatest things in life had setbacks along the way. We’re no different!
There’s a huge amount of growth in just letting yourself be human, accepting occasional overindulgence as just that and still feeling love for yourself despite choices you don’t feel great about. You have to believe that you deserve to feel satisfied when you eat, you deserve to not feel hunger constantly and you deserve to enjoy food.
I have so much more to say on this issue (it’s one of my favorite to work with clients on) but I feel like there’s a lot of info here and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone dealing with this issue. If you struggle with emotional eating I hope you find some of the tips here helpful! Ultimately, know that you are not alone. What you are going through is not uncommon and it is possible to have a more relaxed relationship with food with a little work (and in some cases, professional counseling). The first step in having a healthier relationship with food is by working on the relationship you have with yourself.