Are You an Emotional Eater?

Take a minute and ask yourself these questions. Do you feel guilty when you eat certain foods? When you eat something “bad” is it hard to stop? Do you often feel deprived because you don’t get to eat what you want? Do you think, “Oh well, I’ve already blown it. I might as well keep eating and restart my diet tomorrow”?  Do you eat because it is time to or because you are stressed, bored, happy, celebrating, or one of a thousand other reasons?

For many of us our relationship with food is a tumultuous one.  We are consumed by our food choices.  We feel guilty when we eat something “bad” and struggle to make “good” choices.  Instead of food simply being fuel to meet our body’s true hunger cues many of us obsess over our food choices and eat based on external or emotional reasons or on a strict set of rules.  In the end this can set us up for failure.  As soon as we make that “bad” choice we throw in the towel and vow to start that diet another day.

It is very common for people who struggle with their weight to use food to cope with emotions in one form or another. Whether it is to cope with stress, loneliness, sadness, or simply just boredom it is very common to use food to cope. We are much more likely to make an unhealthy choice and/or overeat when we are eating for emotional reasons.

Figuring out our triggers and reasons behind coping with emotions through food and becoming more mindful is a critical step for weight loss and improving health.

Here are some tips for coping with emotional eating:

Tip #1:  Ask yourself “Am I Hungry?” Just stopping to check in with yourself before eating will give you the opportunity to figure out if you are truly physiologically hungry – stomach growling, light headed, cranky- or eating out of boredom or for some other emotion.  Asking yourself “am I hungry” brings awareness to that moment and makes you more mindful of your choices and why you are making them.

Tip #2: Change the way you talk about food.  I encourage clients to take the description of “good” and “bad” regarding food completely out of their vernacular.  Instead I coach them to replace that all or nothing thinking with terms like “healthier choices” or “choices that are helping me reach my goals” and on the flip side, instead of “bad” using terms like “choices that need improvement” or “choices that aren’t helping me reach my goals”.  It is a transition in mindset that takes time, but can be transformative in the way we approach food and eating. Learning to change your way of thinking about food to a more positive approach can ultimately make food and eating more enjoyable.

Tips #3: Keep a “food and mood” journal. You’ve no doubt heard of keeping a food diary or journal, but for this particular journal focus more on emotional triggers for eating and how you feel after eating.

Tip #4:  Know your triggers.  Look back over your journal and identify your emotional reasons or trigger for coping with food.

Tip #5:  Find other ways to cope and come up with a plan.  Write down five other things you could do in those emotionally difficult times instead of eating.  Some examples might be to call a friend, go for a 10 minute walk around the block, or go hit the gym.

Tip #6:  Learn to de-stress.  Exercise can be a great stress and emotion reliever. Yoga, tai chi, massage, and meditation are also beneficial. I have just discovered a great app called Stop, Breathe, & Think that is free and has guided meditations.  Meditation can allow you a few minutes to turn your brain off, breathe, and let go. It may sound new age-y, but the benefits are well documented and numerous.  Just 5-10 minutes a day, to start, can have a positive impact.

If you know emotional eating is an issue for you, pick just one of these strategies to work on and put into practice in the week to come. It is very possible to learn new strategies and create new positive habits to deal with emotions.

Want to read more about breaking free from the emotional eating cycle and learn more about mindful eating? I highly recommend the book “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat” by Michelle May M.D.

The goal is to make our relationship with food a positive one and give up the struggle once and for all. I have seen first hand that when we can end the battle, food loses its control, allowing us to let go and the pounds come off.