It’s important to start to get clear about how we often run from our suffering â€” when weâ€™re feeling loneliness, anger, fear, stress, frustration â€¦ we turn to distractions and comforts. Food is one of the most common ways we try to escape our suffering.
This strategy started when we were young â€” maybe our mom or grandma would comfort us when weâ€™re sad by giving us some tasty food. We started to equate food with love, with mom or grandma. Over the years, we turned to this strategy over and over, comforting ourselves from the pain by giving ourselves the love of food.
Of course, this strategy doesnâ€™t actually work â€¦ we give ourselves the pleasure of food, but weâ€™re still lonely, still angry, still overwhelmed and anxious. In fact, often the food makes us feel guilty, or it can make us unhealthy if we overdo it for too long. So things get worse.
And still, we turn to the food for comfort and love. To be completely honest, I had many of these issues when I started learning mindful and healthy eating about 10 years ago, and even today I still find these old habits coming back from time to time. I used to eat for many emotional reasons: stress, to reward myself for hard work, to compensate for a bad day, comfort when I was feeling sad or lonely, to avoid problems, because others were doing it so it was OK, and more.
The result was that I ballooned to an unhealthy weight over 230 lbs., and had the hardest time changing my eating habits. I went on several diets (Atkins, Flat Belly Diet, South Beach) and none of them stuck, because I couldnâ€™t figure out why I would keep eating things I knew were unhealthy for me. My eating was out of control.
It wasnâ€™t until I began to eat mindfully that I realized why I was eating so much, and why it was so hard to change. I started to realize how much of a crutch food was for me, and how I used it to deal with so many emotions.
Awareness was the start. Once I became aware of what was going on, the next challenge was changing. Thatâ€™s not always easy, because these are habits that have built up over the years and they are habits we use to deal with very real needs. Stress is real â€” how will you cope with stress besides eating? So is anger, sadness, the need for comfort, the need for friendship. How will you deal with those needs?
This is how you beat emotional eating â€” you learn to deal with the emotions in healthier ways.
Iâ€™ll give you a process that can be used for any emotional eating, and then some examples.
How to Deal with Emotional Eating
This is a process I recommend for everyone â€” even if you think you donâ€™t have emotional eating issues, itâ€™s worth considering, because you might not be aware of some of the issues that are undercutting your attempts at eating healthy.
- Commit to eating mindfully for a month. Pay attention to your emotions as you start to think about eating (you might feel hungry, or have a craving to eat something). Notice your emotions as you eat, and after as well. Keep a few notes â€” what emotions do you feel, when, and why. What do you feel like eating? You donâ€™t need copious notes, but you should start a list of the emotions (stress, anger, sadness, joy).
- When the emotional trigger comes up, pause.
- Stay with the feeling.
- Turn to it with friendliness.
- Allow yourself to eat a little, but pay attention to your emotions as you eat. Eat slowly, and pause.
- Keep your friendly, patient attention on how the emotion feels in your body.
Repeat this whenever you get an emotional trigger, or as often as you can remember.
So here are some examples of healthier ways to cope with emotional triggers:
- Stress. Instead of eating, try some kind of exercise, such as pushups, walking, jogging, weights, or yoga. Try deep breathing or meditating for 2 minutes. Try massaging your shoulders. Drink water.
- Boredom. Many people eat when theyâ€™re bored. What are some healthy ways to deal with boredom instead? Go for a walk. Find a comfy spot and read a novel. Find friends to play sports with or go for a hike with. Learn to garden or sew. Make tea. Write. Journal. Do yoga. Listen to music.
- Reward. Did you put in a hard dayâ€™s work? Did you accomplish something great? Did you finish that report or paper or chapter or project? Did you make a big sale? Time to reward yourself with food! Woohoo! Except that there are other ways to reward yourself: Take a nap. Get a massage. Take a bath. Have sex. Have tea. Allow yourself some down time.
- Comfort â€“ sadness, depression, loneliness. We often use food as a way to comfort ourselves, often a habit stemming from childhood. What are other ways to comfort yourself? Find a friend or loved one to comfort you or give you a hug. Again, tea can be a good choice. Snuggle with a pet. Do yoga or meditate. Call someone. Take a walk in nature. Watch a sunset. Light scented candles and take a bath.
- Social. Often we eat as a way to socialize, or because other people weâ€™re socializing are eating. Learn other ways to socialize instead: go for a hike, play sports, make healthy food with friends, play music or make art together, or have fruit instead of unhealthy foods. Learn to socialize with others who are eating, without eating yourself. Have a glass of water and focus on conversation rather than eating.
This isnâ€™t a comprehensive list, but some examples of ways you can cope with your needs without food. As you experiment, you might find other ways that work better for you. The key is to start!
For the next few days, take notes about the emotions you feel each time you put any food or drink in your mouth. Just make a list of emotions, no need for details. Once a day, pause with one of the difficult emotions, and try the method outlined above, staying with the feeling, turning to it with friendliness, etc.