If you want emotional eating to be a thing of your past, if you want your long history of diets to be over, if you want to stop struggling with food, there is one thing you absolutely must do and that is get out of your head and get back into your body.
What do I mean by this? Most of us with emotional eating issues or a long term diet mentality will do anything we can to distance ourselves from our bodies and we often don’t even realize it. While a lot of our mental focus might be spent on how we feel about our body on any particular day (feeling fat, feeling gross for overeating etc) or how we want our body to look (wanting to be thinner, fitter or more muscular, wanting to have curves if we don’t etc), virtually none is spent on actually paying attention to the signals our body sends to us – signals like hunger, fullness, satisfaction and having had enough!
If you watch babies and young children, they are very in tune with the signals their bodies send them. Babies cry and toddlers get cranky when hungry. They feel it. Some days it seems like they eat almost nothing, while other times they seem to be a bottomless pit. We say “oh they must be going through a growth spurt” when this happens. We recognize that the extra hunger they have must be caused by something their body is conveying. A need for energy. A need for nourishment. A need for fuel to build healthy muscles and bones. But they stop themselves when they’ve had enough. While very young, we are very in sync with the needs of the body. So we start off honed in to these sensations and then lose it. Why?
Over time, we’re taught that we can’t trust our bodies. The teacher might be parents, relatives, well meaning neighbors, or it might be advertisements we see in every form of media. As children, we’re told told if we clean our plates we’ll be rewarded with dessert. How many of you struggled to finish your meal just so you could enjoy a treat? We’re taught that eating happens at 8am, 12pm and 6pm and we fill up at those pre-selected meal times whether or not our bodies say we are hungry. As adults, we’re taught that smaller portions and counting calories is the only way to not be overweight. We receive the message that point systems, low fat products, sugar free substitutes, and liquid meal replacements are the way to having a thinner body (never mind the message that a thinner body is what we all must have to be happy or desirable! uggg!). Along the way, we learn to gauge if we’ve had enough or too much food based on the calories, visual cues like portion size or by what we see in the mirror (thin or fat?). Eventually we learn to ignore something we had at birth – the ability to determine when we’ve had enough by paying attention to how our body feels.
We’re so focused on what our bodies should look like, how they should appear in a bathing suit and how few calories it takes to see the scale go up that we spend a huge chunk of our time attempting to maintain some arbitrary bullshit ideal. We abuse ourselves by withholding food based on whatever is popular at the time, instead of using the tools that our body is equipped with (or abuse ourselves by overeating to satisfy an emotional need). I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again – Our bodies are incredible machines – all we need to eat the right amount of food is inside us, if we’d only start paying attention and give it the trust that we instead give to whatever diet guru is popular at the moment.
Paying attention to the signals in my body has been a huge game-changer for my own relationship with food. I used to think that there was no way to not weigh 300 lbs without strictly accounting for all calories – but once I was able to trust my own hunger (now that I can recognize what that is!) I found that my weight is far more stable and I have less fear and stress around food. When I focused on calories, I made food choices based on what was going to help me meet my weight loss goals and not what was going to fuel my body. It wasn’t balanced and I always felt deprived. These days I can eat whenever I’m hungry and stop when I’m not and not worry about it – all because I’m in tune with my body and stop eating when I’m not hungry.
A key theme that every eating issue recovery program, tool, book and philosophy on the subject all have in common is that if you want to be more at peace with food and your body, you have to get out of your head and return to your body. If you eat according to anything other than the physical sensation of hunger, you’re probably not doing that.
What does this mean exactly?
Getting out of your head and back into your body means:
- we choose to eat because we are hungry. True “hunger” means your stomach feels empty, it may make growling noises, your mouth may salivate at the thought of food, you may feel weak, lightheaded or slightly nauseous. You may feel hunger in your throat or neck instead of your stomach. It may be a gnawing, gurgly, light feeling. Hunger is a physical sensation. Describe it. Get in touch with it. What does “hunger” feel like to you? When was the last time you recognized that you had physical hunger? Do you feel it daily? Once in a while? Don’t remember the last time you felt it?
- we stop eating when we are no longer hungry. Most of us confuse emotional hunger with physical hunger. You will never satisfy emotional hunger by eating food. Being in your body and in touch with the physical sensations it gives you means you can recognize when you are truly hungry and make the choice to stop eating when you are not.
- not making food decisions based on whether something looks like it’s too much or not enough food, or whether it’s more or less calories than you “should” have at a certain meal. Instead of using judgements from our head about the quantity of food to determine how much to eat, we have to allow our bodies to tell us when we’ve had enough food. This can be really scary if you been calorie counting, dieting, restricting or have a history of out of control eating – I recognize this – but it’s key. You have to trust yourself.
- Choosing foods based on their ability to make your body feel energetic, light and satisfied. We make the majority of our food choices based on fuel and nutrition but occasionally still leaving room for foods that bring us joy (and this doesn’t mean that the foods that we use for fuel aren’t also enjoyable!).
- Avoiding foods that make us feel sluggish, lethargic or make us feel out of control. When we’re eating from our heads we tend to choose foods that don’t satisfy us very well (fat-free, low calorie, low nutrients) or make us feel terrible (fried, heavily processed, high in sugar etc). Are you even aware that some foods make us feel better or worse than others and that that is different for each person? It’s worth working on.
How do we get start to get back in our body?
- Keep a food journal. I know it’s tedious but it works. Write down every single thing you put in your mouth (food or drink, even a single lick off a spoon – every bite!), what time you ate, as well as how hungry your were when you started eating and how full/satisfied you were when finished. It’s also helpful to record where you ate the meal and your mood at the time. Calories aren’t important but quantity might be helpful in the beginning. This is where we see patterns and start to understand our food “story”. Knowing your story is how you go about changing it. Some of the things you’ll see: When do you overeat? What foods do you tend to go for when you’re in a good mood? When you’ve had a rough day? Are you eating more or less than you thought you were? If you’re not willing to take the time to keep the food journal, you may want to ask yourself why? What are you afraid of finding out? People I know who are resistant to keeping a food journal, claim it’s because they already are aware of what and how much they are eating, but they’re usually the ones who have the most to learn and the most to gain from connecting with their bodies! Yes, you can use an online tool like myfitnesspal, peertrainer or whatever else you’re into – BUT ignore the calories, macros etc, PLEASE input info beyond the actual food you eat and ANALYZE it over time. Using paper, you’re more likely to look back at past entries and see your habits – with tech we’re less likely to do that so be willing to commit to that if you insist on using an app. I have seen the best results from paper and pen for me and my clients.
- Use a hunger scale. When we’re not used to paying attention to the sensations in our bodies, using a hunger scale every time we eat can help us by slowly bring our attention back to our bodies on a regular basis. It takes a little practice. Here are two tools that I regularly use with clients (depending on their particular needs) – example 1 and example 2. In both tools, the goal is to stay somewhere in the middle all day – never letting yourself get super hungry or super full (neutral to comfortably satisfied is where it’s at). Doing this, we start to pay more attention to when and how our bodies start to signal us and we’re less likely to run into that problem where we’ve gotten so hungry that we can’t make good decisions and end up going completely overboard. A tool like this takes a little practice to use. First you have to determine what each point on the scale means to you – with Brooke Castillo’s 2 to 2 scale (from example 2) – how much food do you need to eat to take yourself from -2 to 0? What about from 0 to +2? What does eating to +5 look and feel like? What does letting yourself get to -7 feel like? You may find some days you reach satisfaction with less food than on other days. Some days you may find that you are hungrier than usual and need to eat every few hours to prevent yourself from getting too hungry. Once you know how much food it takes to keep you in a comfortable place on the scale, you can plan ahead since you’ll know what it will take to satisfy you (and you’ll start to recognize how beneficial it is to not let yourself get too hungry or too horribly full). I can tell you that what felt like “enough but not too much” shortly after I ended my regular binges now feels like being super stuffed. Be willing to adjust your expectations and needs as you get more comfortable with your body and eating intuitively.
- Eat slowly, in a calm environment and chew more than you think you need to. Doing this ensures your brain and digestive system work together to #1 prepare to digest your food properly (saliva and gastric juices baby!) and #2 release chemicals that tell your brain that you’ve had enough. Often we eat so quickly that by the time we stop eating, it’s another 20 or 30 minutes before the brain catches up – by then we’re so full we can’t stand it! If you slow down it won’t get to that point and you’ll be amazed how much less you need to eat to feel “good”.
- Indulge in body based self-care. It’s not a direct route to listening to your physical hunger sensations but these are all certainly aligned with getting in touch with your body (literally!) and can help foster the skills you need to listen to your body more. If you can’t stand to touch or move your body, you might be not be open to its communication tools as well. Try some of these to open back up: Dry brushing daily with a natural bristled brush (towards the heart), physical movement that focuses on the mind-body connection like yoga or qigong, masturbation (did she just write that? yes, yes she did!) or deep tissue massage.
Ditching a diet mentality and recovering from emotional eating takes a lot of effort but with concrete tools and consistency you can make some incredible progress. Eating does not have to be such a struggle and if you start here – connecting with your physical self, you are at step one of a healthier relationship with food and yourself.
Does any of this resonate with you? Have you been completely out of touch with your hunger signals? Please share in the comments! And as usual, if you like what you’ve read here, please sign up to be on my email list in the green box below.