By: Caroline Mackey, CNP, PTS
Comforting. Celebratory. Soothing. Pleasurable. These are just some of the feelings that are often associated with food. We need to eat to live, but we also eat because it’s enjoyable, it’s often a social activity, it’s involved with family traditions, it can be coping mechanism, and for so many other reasons. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the food you eat, in fact that should be the goal with all that we consume.
Where it can become challenging is when we become emotionally dependent on food. It could be that it helps us feel better; it helps calm you down after a stressful day; it gives you excitement when something good has happened; and so many more. Unfortunately when we use foods as an emotional crutch it’s often foods (and drink) that are not nutritionally beneficial, and have high amounts of sugar, salt and fat.
The first step to overcoming emotional eating is to stop blaming yourself for a perceived lack of discipline or self-control. So many of us beat ourselves up for lack of willpower, however there’s so many factors that contribute to emotional eating that have nothing to do with willpower.
Once you start treating yourself with more kindness, then you need to bring more awareness to the choices you make when you’re eating. Try this trick: before you eat something, pause for 10 seconds. Think about what you’re doing and ask yourself, is this nutritious? Am I hungry or just tired/dehydrated? Am I eating this because I’m emotional in some way? Often we resort to a lot of mindless eating. Once you bring awareness to what you eat you will be surprised how easy it can be to make better choices.
If you realize you’re eating because you’re emotional, put down the food and take a moment with yourself. Close your eyes, and explore what you’re feeling. Anxiety? Sadness? Stress? It can be uncomfortable to sit with more negative feelings, which is why we often reach for food instinctually to feel better in the moment. And this is not just emotional, chemicals are released in the brain when we eat these comfort foods, and they have calming and soothing effects. Instead, however, try and acknowledge how you’re feeling, and reiterate to yourself that food is not the answer. Find other ways to soothe or relax. Reach out to friends or family, use some self-care tools like taking a bath or going for a walk, or whatever works for you that will address your feelings in a more useful way.
If you’re eating emotionally because you’re tired or stressed, that can often be because you’ve not supported yourself with proper nutrition throughout the day. By keeping your blood sugar balanced you will be able to keep a much more stable mood and energy level. Have meals that contain a good source of complex carbohydrates (vegetables), protein and a good fat (nuts and seeds, avocado, olive or coconut oil). Have a mid-morning and afternoon snack if that helps to further stabilize you. Something simple like an apple with almond butter, a handful of nuts (12-15) and seeds, or some chopped veggies with hummus.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that we all make food choices from time to time that are not the healthiest. However, if you become more mindful of what the motivation is behind the choices, than you can make better choices next time. And in the meantime, don’t beat yourself up for that piece of cake or slice of pizza. We’re all human, just be kind to yourself and learn from that choice to make a different one next time.
Caroline Mackey, CNP, PTS – Nutrition & Fitness Coach; Founder, Real Life Revolution