Do you enjoy eating a bag of crisps, bar of chocolate, slice of cake or half a tub of ice cream when you are feeling sad, stressed, anxious, angry, lonely or bored? Turning to food when we are feeling these emotions, is known as emotional eating because instead of turning to food to satisfy our hunger, we are turning to food to feel some sense of comfort. But the down side of turning to food for comfort, we generally feel worse and guilty, because the original emotions that we were feeling are still there after the feeling of comfort has long gone. These food cravings we have, when we are looking for comfort can seem to leave us powerless but there is an answer and a way to stop ourselves from emotionally eating.
Are you ready to start dealing with the automatic reactions that trigger your emotional eating?
Occasionally it’s not a bad thing to use food as a pick me up or as a self reward. But when you are only using food, day in and day out as a copping mechanism because you are stressed, sad, angry, had a bad day at work etc.. Then you become stuck in an unhealthy cycle of trying to mask those feelings with food instead of addressing the problem in the first place.
The only thing is our emotional hunger or need will never be filled with food and although we feel good after wards, that feel good feeling soon disappears and the emotions that triggered us to eat half a tub of ice-cream are not only still there but we have also add to those emotions of feeling guilty that we just consumed half a tub of ice cream or a whole box of chocolates. If we are completely honest with ourselves we actually tend to feel worse after we have stuffed ourselves with comfort food!
Here comes the good news, no matter how much you feel powerless in your unhealthy cycle of using food to comfort your feelings, it is possible to take the power back by learning how to consume food mindfully, learning how to deal with our emotions (without the need of food) and regain control of the healthier you.
First of all before any changes can be made we need to understand fully the difference between emotional eating and eating to fuel our body with the nutrients it needs, as it is easy to mistake your emotional hunger for physical hunger.
Hunger that comes on suddenly – Emotional hunger hits you in the face with not a seconds notice as soon as you start feeling negative feelings. Physical hunger is gradual; it does not feel like a desire (I fancy a slice of cake etc…) and does not give you that happy feeling of satisfaction afterwards.
Hunger that craves a certain food – When our body is physically hungry and needs fuel to function, we are happy to eat anything (even a slice of dried bread), but when we craving sugary or salty snacks this is our emotional hunger talking to us.
Hunger that causes mindless amounts of food – Emotional eating cuts out the signals from our stomach to the brain that tell us we are full up and we can stop eating. This is why we can eat a whole large chocolate bar in one go, when we only had the intention of eating a couple of squares. Where eating for physical needs, does not break the message and we instantly know when we have had enough to eat, in these cases we do only eat a couple of squares of chocolate.
Hunger that is located in our head alone – Physical hunger comes from our stomach because our stomach notifies us our body needs food by making noises or by giving us hunger pains. Where the type of hunger where we have a craving that drives us mad and the only thing we can think about is the certain food is emotional hunger which comes from our brain.
It’s important to learn your emotional eating triggers, before you can take back the power and stop the cycle.
What do I mean by emotional eating triggers? There are certain things that happen to us that send a trigger to our brain to crave a certain food. These triggers can be anything from our feeling, a smell, a situation we find ourselves in a place that triggers a memory etc… Although 80% of the time these triggers can take place because of a negative thing that is happening or happened, sometimes (that remainder 20%) these triggers can be linked to a positive thing, such as a celebration, happy memory, an achievement ec… This is why it’s really important to learn what your triggers are and why they are your triggers.
Which of these most common triggers do you think could also be part of your triggers?
Stress – When you are stressed do you reach for or crave certain foods? Does this craving convince you that if you for fill its demand you will be less stress? When we are stressed out to the point you could pull your hair out or run away to a paradise island to hide for the rest of your life. Our body produces extremely high levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. This cortisol hormone triggers sweat and salty cravings in our brain because these types of food gives our body a quick boost of instant energy, which in turn calms our body down, lowing our stress levels to a level where we can think logically.
Controlling Emotions – When someone has upset you or you have seen / heard something distressing do you reach for your favourite food? Does this food then bring your mood back to a happier place? This is known as silencing our emotions, we are temporary make ourselves feel better by blocking out those negative emotions with food that makes us feel better. In a way we are numbing ourselves so we don’t need to deal with the issue head on, even though really the only way to deal with why we feel these negative emotions is by looking at them head on.
Boredom and Loneliness – When you are completely board out of your brain either waiting for something to happen, in a meeting, visiting family members etc. Do you reach for food to take away the boredom? Eating just to fill the boredom and fill a space in time by occupying ourselves with food distracts us from our thoughts, resting mindfully and our underlying purpose / dissatisfaction of our life.
Childhood – Did your parents reward you with sweets, take way food etc… When you achieved something, got a good grade or even for good behavior? This habit of being rewarded with your favorite food can carry on into our adult hood where we reward ourselves with the same type of food and some of these foods that we were rewarded with as children can also bring back memories of fun times we had as children.
5 Steps to Help You Take Back Control of Your Emotional Eating Patterns
Take a mindful minute – Instead of automatically responding to the feeling of hunger, take a moment to think, analyze why you are feeling hungry. By taking this split second to work out the root cause of why at that moment in time you are feeling hungry you can ask yourself; is my hunger coming from my stomach or my mind? Is this an emotional hunger or a physical hunger? By doing this you are slowing down the process of eating something when maybe you don’t actually need to and allows you to begin to take control of your emotional eating.
Put it in writing – Keep a food journal (in your notebook, smart-phone, tablet etc..) and note down the time of day you feel hungry, the description of your hunger, what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. The why you are feeling that way is important to note because it could be connected to something that you experienced in your past but had never released you masked it with food instead of dealing with that past experience. Every now and gain look through your food journal and see if you can see a pattern between certain emotions, the food you eat and even certain times of the day or month. All this simple information will give you knowledge on how you can take power back from your emotional eating habits.
Make a decision – Now you have taken the time to analyze if you are feeling hungry because you are physically hungry or just craving a certain food because you are emotionally hungry, you can make a better choice about what you are going to do next. If your hunger is physical, you may be able to put off eating for a little while until you can have a nourishing healthy meal. Or you may need to have a healthy snack if your physical hunger is happening in between meals because you missed breakfast or lunch.
If you have worked out your hunger is an emotional one, it’s harder to put off as those cravings are persistent and won’t stop till you have satisfied it. Instead of giving in to the craving try these tactics instead.
- Eat substitute food – If you are craving something sweet try eating a piece of fruit, a sugar free jelly or a watermelon chopped up into chunks with a sprinkle of chilli powder, (chilli’s stimulate the digestion, reduce hunger / cravings and boosts your metabolism) instead. Or if you are craving something salty or spicy, try eating a few pieces of celery sprinkled with cayenne (cayenne raises body temp, helping to boost metabolism and by adding this spice to your food can help you burn up to 100 calories per meal), or homemade popcorn dusted with chilli powder.
- Do activities – Sometimes doing an activity can for fill the emotion need behind your craving. For example if you are looking for comfort take a herbal scented bath or go for walk along the beach / lovely park. Feeling isolated? Stroke a pet or read some inspirational quotes that inspire you. Feeling board or tired? Try going for a walk or run, read a chapter of a good book. Feeling stressed or tense? Dance to load upbeat music, get an aromatherapy massage or go kick boxing.
- Have just a nibble – I know and understand there are just some cravings that just will not go away unless you give in to them no matter what you do to try and avoid them. But sometimes depriving yourself from these cravings can completely back fire and you end up eating way more of that craving then you would normally do. You really do need a lot of will power to do this but scientists have found if you have 3 or 4 bites of the food item you are craving is enough to satisfy that craving. With each bit savour the moment, slowly chew and mindfully enjoy every second this food item is in your mouth.
Do a stomach test – I know this sounds like a strange thing to do but honestly it works. Around 15 minutes after you have eaten take a minute to think about how you feel. Does your stomach feels full and are you feeling satisfied or do you feel guilty? Did you stop eating when you where full or did you not realise you where full and had too much to eat? If you felt guilty and unhappy afterwards what could you have done differently? It’s important you don’t beat yourself up as these can lean you back down the road of emotional eating, by asking yourself these questions you are learning from any mistakes you have made. Make a note in your food journey of the lessons you have learnt and then move on knowing that the experience will help you the next time you feel emotionally hungry.
Learn from your feelings – You have come so far; you have noted your triggers, you can see your eating patterns, you know what cravings you have, you know the difference between physical and emotional hunger and you have other strategies in place to resist your cravings. Now it’s important to look at all your emotions / feelings behind your emotional eating. For example if being tired triggered your craving then may be going to bed earlier or taking a nap will stop that trigger, if it’s relationship that is making you feel sad you may need to end that relationship or if it’s the stress off work and a boss that is not understanding, you may want to think about changing jobs. But if the emotion behind your triggers is more complex than just changing a few things in your day to day routine, you may need to consider getting counselling.
In order to take make total control of your emotional eating, you have to find other ways to deal with underlying emotions that are involved, or else you won’t be able to control your eating habits long term. You can try many different diets to try and change you’re eating habits but your emotions will hijack you good efforts and it’s not enough to just understand your cycle of emotional eating or your triggers. You need alternatives that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
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