Emotional Eating 101
Originally published in The Chalkboard Magazine
Often there’s so much shame around emotional eating. As someone who spent years battling an unhealthy relationship with food, I can tell you this:You will not find the solution to eating issues in shame.You won’t find it by approaching your struggle with self-loathing or punishing yourself because you’ve failed yet again. The real answer lies in nourishing your body, mind and soul from a place of love and self-acceptance.
If you’re using food to soothe yourself or cope with your emotions, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Your emotional eating is not a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t mean you lack self-control. It’s a sign that you need to nurture yourself in a new way. It’s an opportunity to dig deeper and discover where you can start giving to yourself. And it’s a chance to learn how to listen to your body and emotions. When you let your emotional eating struggle become a catalyst for change, you give yourself the chance to have a healthy relationship with food.
I’ve created a toolkit to help you on your journey. As you work through it, remember: It is possible to overcome emotional eating, but it won’t happen overnight. You have to commit to practicing these tools every day, and you have to be kind, loving and gentle with yourself every step of the way. With that in mind, let’s begin…
Connect With Your Physical Hunger Signals
When you connect with your body’s natural hunger signals, you’re empowered to make food decisions based on hunger rather than emotion. But if you’re used to letting your emotions guide your eating, you may feel completely disconnected from your natural appetite and have a hard time identifying when you’re actually hungry. It is possible to reconnect with this innate ability, but you have to tune into your body. Remember that there are always physical symptoms when your body is hungry — like a growling stomach and lack of energy. The key in connecting with your natural appetite is to scan your body for physical hunger sensations before you eat anything. If you don’t notice any physical signs of hunger, wait to eat until you do.*
This may be difficult at first. If you’re unable to identify physical hunger sensations but find yourself wanting to eat anyway, try using some of the tools in “Learn New Ways to Soothe” below instead.
Real Food Matters
Learning to listen to your body’s hunger signals is critical for overcoming emotional eating. But if you skip meals and eat nutrient-poor, unhealthy foods, you’ll skew your natural appetite and sabotage your best efforts. Here’s why: If you skip breakfast, and eat a snacky lunch (like a bar or a handful of nuts), by the time mid-afternoon rolls around, you’ll be starving for nutrients. You’ll likely end up uncontrollably eating whatever you can find, and it will be difficult to listen to your natural appetite. Likewise, if you eat foods made up of refined carbs and sugar, which are devoid of nutrients and spike your blood sugar and cause cravings, it will also be hard for you to listen to your body’s innate hunger signals. Not only will you end up craving more carbs and sugar, your body won’t have gotten the nutrients it needs and will have a hard time feeling satisfied. Set yourself up for success by eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. And make sure your meals are nutrient-dense, macronutrient-balanced and made from real, whole foods. When you nourish your body in a healthy way, you empower yourself to listen to it.
Understand Your Triggers
When you know what triggers your emotional eating, you can create healthy, non-food ways to deal with the trigger itself. Food journaling is a powerful tool to help you dig deeper and identify your triggers. When you journal, track whether you were physically hungry, what you ate, the emotions that you felt and the circumstances that gave rise to those feelings. If a particular circumstance (e.g., home alone on Sunday night) or feeling (e.g., lonely) triggers emotional eating, create a non-food strategy to deal with that situation or emotion (e.g., go to a movie with a friend) so that you’re prepared the next time it comes up.
Feel Your Feelings
Nobody enjoys feeling anger, sadness, hurt or other unpleasant emotions. But you have these feelings for a reason, and you’re meant to feel them. When you use food to numb your feelings or push them away, you set yourself up for overeating, binge eating and feeling unwell every time an emotion that you don’t like comes up. To change this, you have to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions and connect with what you really need in the moment. You’ll not only feel more fulfilled when you start giving to yourself in this way, you’ll enable yourself to have a healthier relationship with food.