To some degree emotional eating is just part of being a human – we all do it now and again because the bottom line is that it works. Food really does translate into comfort in the human brain and that comfort feedback can get out of hand. It’s easy to use food as a reward, as a treat, or as a way to calm down when you’re anxious, depressed or angry. It’s easy to do because a lot of the time it works – food does help you feel better in the moment when you’re emotions are getting the best of you. It can also hurt you in the long-run because then you have to struggle with weight, self-image, powerlessness and body issues. This is a no-win cycle, but there are ways out.
Six Signs of Emotional Eating:
- You often eat so quickly or so much that you feel over-full, uncomfortable or bloated
- You find yourself eating ‘for no reason’ or ‘because you’re bored’
- You eat more when your schedule becomes tighter as a sign of stress
- You gain weight in stressful times or in emotional times
- You feel ‘addicted’ to food or to certain foods
- Your cravings are compelling and changeable (ice cream for sadness, chips for boredom, snickers when you’re feeling lonely)
Fixing Emotional Eating:
Emotional eating isn’t easy to fix, but it isn’t hard either, there isn’t a complicated technique or months of waiting, just some honest emotional processing. The hardest part is being willing to actually sit down with yourself and feel exactly what you’re feeling instead of self-medicating. Sort of like an eating meditation, or a food contemplation. There is not really a big difference, grand scheme of things, between hiding from your feelings with food and hiding from your feeling with heroine. These are both just ways of escaping from what you really feel, even if one is a little more dramatic than the other. It sounds really easy to admit that you’re feeling crummy and sit with that; maybe cry or get angry or be scared but this is honestly one of the hardest, most wonderful and most terrifying things you can ever do as a human. Real, honest emotions can be genuinely world-changing. This is some of the scariest, most honest work you will ever do along with some of the most rewarding, so let’s get to it.
The Cure for Emotional Eating: Take Five
- Take a tour of your kitchen and pantry and find your emotional trigger foods. Chances are you know what it is you go for when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or sad or lonely.The usual list includes things like brownies, snickers, sweets and candy, ice cream, chips, pop corn, etc…
- Write on the outside of those food containers with a sharpie to “Take 5” in big letters so that when you’re in a vulnerable place you don’t have to try to remember whether or not that’s a trigger food for you, you can just read the package. Make sure that when you go grocery shopping you label your trigger foods when they come into the house.
- When you grab something out of the pantry, check the package to see if it says “Take Five”
- Sit down as usual, but set your kitchen timer for five minutes.
- In that 5 minutes, just sit and look at your food but don’t touch it yet. Just sit, and look and pay attention to how you feel. Not how you want to feel, but how you really feel. If emotions are hard for you to get in touch with, then just focus on your body. How does the air feel in your lungs when you breathe? Is your stomach tight? Do you feel relaxed? Are you hurting anywhere? What does it feel like to be inside your body?
- In that 5 minutes, you may feel angry for having to wait, impatient, frustrated, sad, or irritable. You may burst into tears, start thinking about a fight you had with your partner or have a grand realization about your life. You also may not notice anything, or think about the toe you just stubbed on the chair as you were sitting down. Just pay attention to however it is that you feel and when the buzzer rings then eat like you normally would.
- As you’re eating, notice what the food feels like in your mouth, why you chose the food you did and how you feel as you’re eating it. Really think about whether or not that food is making you feel any different. Really think about if that food is giving you what you thought it would or not. You don’t have to change anything else about the eating other than just paying attention to it. Honestly, if you’re paying attention to how you really feel the compulsive eating will resolve itself.
That’s it! That’s all you have to do – is just wait five minutes and really be in your body before you eat and while you’re eating. This is an exercise in finding out about yourself. Emotional eating is different in every person because we all have different hurts, fears, traumas, anxieties and life situations. The only way to fix it is to notice that you’re doing it, notice when it happens and acknowledging those feelings in a healthy, honest way. The idea behind this is that you can’t deal with whatever is under there, unless you know what it is. Pretty simple, right?
If you work through things on paper, like I do, then keeping a journal about what you’re feeling can be really helpful. If you’re more of a talker then finding a food buddy can be helpful or talking with a counselor. If you like to read about the idea then the best book I’ve found about this subject is Geneen Roth’s Women Food and God.
Women Food and God is just a great resource for anyone who really wants to get to the root of their emotional self, and the book uses the idea of food as a pathway to everything – life, beliefs about yourself, and god. Essentially her idea is that your relationship with food is your relationship with life, so if you’re eating for comfort or solace or escape, then what does that say about the rest of your life? Emotional eating is a challenge for sure, but it is also an opportunity for growth and a tool that you can use to explore yourself more deeply. Of course there are many health reasons to do this, but the most important reasons are about happiness. After all, nobody self-medicates happiness.