It is not an unusual experience – we feel something and to deal with it, we eat. More than likely what we choose to eat is not broccoli or lentils. It tends to be some sort of “comfort food” that is high in calories, bad fats and non-nutritious. One way to break this cycle of emotional or binge eating is to HALT. “HALT” is an acronym often used among mental health professionals who are working with clients that need to break a cycle of an unhealthy behavior (such as emotional eating.). Here is how HALT works:
First, we need to be aware of the behavior we want to change. This could be eating/bingeing at certain times during the day, eating unhealthy foods, or eating during another activity such as watching TV. What we need to ask ourselves when we are in the pantry searching for the potato chips or opening the freezer to get out the Ben and Jerry’s is:
Am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? (or) Tired?
We need to be honest with ourselves when we answer this question. Asking “Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired?” causes us to pause our behavior and think about what we are doing. Following are some ways to mindfully interrupt the cycle of emotional eating and address what the real issue is when we are not genuinely hungry.
If we are angry, what is a better way to resolve our anger? Some options may be to write out what we would like to say to the person (but not necessarily share it with them), go for a brisk walk, or do some deep breathing for a few minutes to calm ourselves. Anger is a normal emotion, but it often covers up a deeper feeling such as being hurt, disrespected or misunderstood by another person. Trying to eat away anger does not help; dealing with it in a healthy, productive way is much more effective.
If we are lonely, what can we do to quell those feelings of isolation? We can contact a friend, ask a family member who lives far away to Skype with us, find a place to volunteer our time, or find a hobby where we can engage with others (such as a book club). Loneliness signals a need to connect with others. However, people do not always realize when we are lonely. Therefore, we need to take the initiative and develop ways to build relationships in our families, our communities, at work and other places where we feel safe, positive and happy. Keep in mind that trying to eat away our loneliness will more than likely add on weight. This, in turn, will drive us to further isolation because we will become more uncomfortable with our bodies and our behaviors.
If we are tired, then we need sleep, not food. We need to establish a regular sleep schedule of at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night and stick with it. The body responds best to a routine of going to bed and waking at about the same hours each day. Feeling tired may also indicate that we need to find a way to relax or wind down. This may mean we soak in a warm bath, go get a massage, or go outside to rock in a rocking chair or take a nap in a hammock. Feeling tired may indicate we are overworked, overwhelmed, stressed or simply in need of a respite. Rest is an important part of health, so we need to be sure to heed the physical, mental and emotional signs that indicate a need for a “time out”. We may think that eating will help us stay more alert, but when we are feeling exhaustion, we tend to eat food that is high in sugar. This causes our blood sugar to spike and then quickly crash, which leads to feeling even worse. The better option is to quiet our minds and relax our bodies when we are fatigued.
Remember: hunger signals a biological need for nutritious, healthy food to feed our bodies so that we can get energy. Food is fuel, not a panacea for other feelings. Next time we find ourselves eating outside of a normal mealtime, HALT and ask, am I truly hungry (stomach growling, been a few hours since I last ate) or are am I angry, lonely or tired? We can interrupt the cycle of emotional eating by using HALT to check in with ourselves and honestly address our real needs and feelings.