There are many reasons people overeat – perhaps it’s ‘greed’ a ‘hearty appetite’ maybe we just love food. As humans our relationship with food has changed over the centuries. We no longer use food as just sustenance. Now we celebrate and socialise with food. The media has made food an emotional experience – think of all those chocolate adverts promising us we’ll feel wonderful after eating it. We have learned to emotionally eat. Using food to celebrate with friends is predominantly a normal, healthy thing to do. It’s the unhealthy emotional eating that I’m talking about…
Unhealthy Emotional eating is when we use food to soothe unwanted emotions, in much the same way as people use alcohol, drugs, over exercise, working too much, shopping, sex, porn, the list is endless!
Emotional eating is unconscious, it’s mindless and here’s how to spot it:
It comes on very quickly, a strong and loud craving. This is different to physical hunger which creeps up slowly.
The emotional eating craving is always or greasy, fatty or sugary comfort food, we never crave a salad when it’s emotional (more’s the pity!) – is this resonating with you?
So what is it? Emotional eating is a call from a part of ourselves that doesn’t want to feel a certain way. Before the feeling has a chance to fully surface the emotional eating kicks in to stop us feeling it. It’s a form of protection – it actually has a positive intention. Our subconscious mind recognises that food, somewhere along the line, has provided us with a form of comfort or relief from an unpleasant feeling and so a pattern has established whereby we go back to this behaviour to make us feel better when we are not feeling good in some way. The downside to this of course is that we feel guilty and put on weight, ultimately not feeling so great!
So, the crucial question is how do we stop emotional eating?
The first step is to become really aware of your triggers and patterns.
The skill is to interrupt the pattern and then start recognising what its really about.
We may have spent years doing this so it will take some time. Eventually, with some practice we will learn to recognise what is behind it – loneliness, fear, panic, sadness, anger, frustration, hurt, even boredom.
When you get a sudden craving for food put your hand on your heart, take a deep breath and ask “what am I really feeling in this moment?” You may be surprised by what comes up.
Once you can name the feeling you can find an alternative response. If it’s loneliness you could call or text a friend, go and be with other people, even if it’s a coffee shop, find another distraction. If it’s hurt and you need comfort you could have a nice bath, go for a walk, again talk to a friend, watch an inspiring TED Talk or a funny TV program. If its anger – is there someone you need to confront or a situation you need to address? Get the idea?
With daily practice, the ability to recognise the feeling you are trying to soothe with food becomes easier. Funny enough the quicker you feel the feeling the easier it is to process and let it go. Best to just feel it rather than eat and then feel a layer of guilt on top of the original negative feeling.
It’s only in my 30’s that I have learnt to recognise the signs and start listening to my body instead. Of course, I still have the odd day when I reach for the biscuits when I’m feeling lonely or tired or have had a difficult conversation with someone but it doesn’t happen so often.
It’s also important to remember that feelings are indicators or calls to action. In starting to recognise how we actually feel we are invited to take action to improve our inner and world. The thing with feelings are they don’t go away until they are heard. Years of avoidance via food may mean that initially you may be a little overwhelmed by what comes up but soon you will find you are so much better at dealing with things and you become more resilient and free to enjoy life without guilt or the need to comfort eat. This is s a lifestyle shift and not a quick fix, however, with a bit of persistence and commitment breaking the emotional cycle becomes second nature. One of the resulting benefits is that you start to feel that lovely combination of both freedom and being in control AND you lose excess weight without dieting!
Emotional eating is actually our subconscious mind’s way of alerting us to an uncomfortable feeling and is a call to action to do something about it. If we deal with the unpleasant emotion rather than reaching for the chocolate we can be liberated from this cycle of eating too much and feeling guilty about it which leads to eating more.
So what else can you do to stop it?
A great idea to become more mindful about when and why you eat is to start a food diary with a difference. Instead of logging calories or fat, split your page into the following columns:
- Time of day
- What had happened that day/trigger
- What you craved or ate
- What emotion you felt immediately prior to the food craving
- What you felt afterwards
After a week or so of keeping track, add a final column:
- What I can do instead of eating?
Think of alternative actions, as previously mentioned above. This not only creates awareness but creates the opportunity to change the pattern.
You CAN overcome this habit of using food to soothe. As with any habit, some effort is required at first but over time, as a new response to uncomfortable feelings is established, the old habit can be broken and the new way of being becomes second nature.
If you’ve struggled with emotional eating and you’re ready to make a change and end your struggle with with weight once and for all, then I’d like to invite you to join either my 1-1 Weight Loss Programme or my Weight Loss Group Programme.