Emotional eating… such a broad and complicated topic! But one that is near and dear to my heart. Having struggled with guilt and shame around emotional eating for most of my life, it's something that I love to help others find awareness and healing around.
For starters, I propose that emotional eating should not be considered a negative thing. We humans are emotional beings. One of our first desires upon entering the world was for food from our mother. And that food created an enormous feeling of safety and calm. To completely detach our emotions from food is nearly impossible.
I think that's an important point, because for many, emotional eating is a source of guilt and shame. We target the emotional eating as the problem and try to force it out of our lives through stricter control, whether through calorie restriction or forced lifestyle changes. Having tried these approaches in numerous ways, I can whole-heartedly say that this does not work.
What if we saw our emotional eating behavior as something that could help us see areas of our lives that are desperate for attention? Here are some of the things our emotional eating could be trying to tell us:
We are distracted. How easy is it to eat when we aren't paying attention?! Whether it's watching TV, scrolling through our phone, sitting in traffic, participating in intense conversation, or multi-tasking at our desk at work... there are so many things that can take our attention away from the food we are eating. Our brain is not allowed to register that we have eaten, so the hunger cues don't go away. This is a purely physiological response that no amount of “willpower” is able to withstand.
Our lives lack pleasure. Eating is incredibly pleasurable! The term "comfort food" exists for a reason. All foods (especially simple carbs like sugar) stimulate the brain's reward center. If we aren't finding pleasure from other areas of our life (healthy relationships, work that brings us joy, time in nature, forms of movement we enjoy, fully embracing our sexuality) it's no surprise that we want to double down on the pleasure that food so easily brings.
We are going through a difficult time. Life's stressors can create a tidal wave of emotions and feelings that can be difficult to handle. Food can be used as an escape and a way to process difficult emotions such as anger, sadness, fear and heartbreak. Unfortunately, food can only bring us temporary relief from these difficult emotions.
We hate our bodies. Thanks to a society that promotes a very limited and unattainable view of beauty, it's easy to fall into the trap of hating the way we look and feeling a low sense of self-worth. I also find that it’s more socially acceptable to express things about our bodies that we don’t like rather than things we DO like. This cycle of negativity and shame can make it incredibly hard to want to make/sustain healthy behaviors around food.
We're tired! Most of us do not get adequate sleep. Studies have shown that there is a huge connection between the quality of our sleep and our eating patterns. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on many of hormones, including the ones related to hunger. When we’re tired, the hormone that tells our brain we're full (leptin) is suppressed, yet the hormone that signals we need to eat (ghrelin) is increased! Obviously this is a recipe for disaster.
This starts to paint a picture of how emotional eating really doesn't have much to do with willpower or "being good". It's something we all struggle with at some point in our lives. The sooner we can embrace it, befriend it, and jump off of the guilt/shame rollercoaster, the sooner we can put ourselves on the path to healing.
If emotional eating is something that you struggle with, first know that you are not alone. Not by a long shot. If you are interested in exploring this part of yourself, here are a few tools I would suggest:
Journal - Before making any changes to your behavior, start making note of it. Don't strive for beautiful prose, just make a few notes throughout the day about how you feel before, during and after you eat. See if any patterns emerge.
Self-care - Rather than adopting a mindset of "whenever I reach this weight/size...THEN I'll love myself"... START NOW! Find simple ways to take care of yourself and make yourself feel loved. Take a hot bath, sleep in, take a walk at lunch time, sign up for dance lessons or a new exercise class, cook yourself a beautiful meal, go on a hike with a friend, diffuse some essential oils, go see some live music. The possibilities are endless! The point is to find things that are easy enough to work into your daily routine.
Learn to let it go - After every time you eat, let it go. I don't care if you've just had a dozen chocolate chip cookies for dinner, LET IT GO. The guilt and shame you feel after eating does zero good for you in the long term, and it typically makes things worse. What would it look like to not feel guilty about what you eat?
Experiment with intuitive eating - Have you lost faith in yourself when it comes to choosing what to eat? It's easy to get bogged down with the quest for a "perfect" diet, and the deluge of conflicting nutrition information available today sure doesn't help with that. Did our grandparents worry about what they ate? I doubt it. What if you tried to listen to your body and see what food would serve you best? If that sounds scary, start with one meal a day where you let go of all the rules and the "shoulds". Close your eyes, take several deep breaths and see if you can tap into what your body wants. This may not happen right away, but it’s an excellent practice to cultivate.
Find a crew - Do you have people around you that have empathy for your struggle with food? If you are scared to discuss your struggles with your friends, or feel compelled to dump on yourself to "fit in", maybe it's time for a new social group. Seek out like-minded individuals who can provide support and encouragement. You can find groups online through sites like Meetup.com, try out different exercise/meditation groups, or check out the events posted on the bulletin boards at your favorite health-focused stores. It takes awhile but finding a support system is so incredibly important!
As a graduate of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, I've spent time studying the huge impact that our emotions have on our overall health. While a nutritious diet can be great, it doesn't do us much good if we are struggling with additional stress around food and body image.
If you are interested in learning more about my work as a Mind Body Eating Coach, contact me, I would love to connect!