“If I’m so smart, why do I keep eating this way?!” said an exasperated CEO who operates a successful company, but felt frustrated with her inability to stop her nighttime overeating tendency.
“Food is my reward for a long day of work and is ‘me-time’ in a day that is filled with caring for everyone else’s needs.” shared a high-powered attorney and primary caretaker of her aging parents.
A perceptive and self-aware woman in her 50’s shared this about her nighttime emotional eating habit; “When I’m alone at night, food allows me to be with something, rather than being alone. Food fills the loneliness void – at least for a little while.”
Food can serve important roles other than fuel for energy or for the simple joy of eating delicious food. For many people, food can also serve as a companion, stress reliever, substitute for intimacy, distraction from life, or as a mental escape from a long, hard day.
We ALL emotionally eat, it’s a component of normal eating. But, it’s the frequency of when we emotionally eat that can become an issue. Or a crutch. How does one stop the cycle of emotional eating if it has become a way of life when it comes to coping with stress? Here are 3 key strategies to start the process.
To reduce emotional eating, we need to (at some point) acknowledge what emotions and thoughts are underlying the desire to emotionally overeat. This self-awareness helps to guide us toward solutions that go to the root of the issue(s) rather than covering them up temporarily with food. Understanding what we are really hungry for on an emotional level will help to guide us out of survival mode and into strategies that are nourishing from the inside-out. If this step feels overwhelming, no need to go it alone. Seek out support from family, a trusted friend, or a counselor who specializes in eating psychology so that you can talk through any issues and emotions that may be driving emotional eating patterns.
Instead of trying harder to avoid emotional eating in the stress of the moment, try to re-direct your attention to a healthy, non-food alternative to delay immediately giving in to the impulse to eat. Creating a pause or space between thought and action is a highly effective tool for making our choices conscious rather than reaching for food on auto-pilot. Undoing auto-pilot behavior by pressing a pause button and re-directing our attention to another activity for at least 10 – 15 minutes allows for our rational mind to enter the decision process. We may still choose to eat, but at least it was a conscious choice, and the amount eaten is often reduced due to the mindfulness component (the pause) that was used.
Hear me out on this one. The most common trap I hear about from the clients I work with is that they are trying to manage their food intake with an all-or-nothing approach. So, they are all ‘in’ with eating good or all ‘out’ with eating ‘bad’. It’s important to understand that feeling out of control with food has little to do with the actual food as much as the ROLE food serves in one’s life. If you regularly forbid yourself from eating your favorite foods, feelings of deprivation may result, which can drive the ‘forbidden fruit’ mentality. We will want what we feel like we can’t or shouldn’t be eating, which can heighten the urge to eat what we deem ‘bad’ foods. Serious backfire. Most of us can do anything for a short period of time, but if the role of food is a source of comfort, trying to eliminate our favorite comfort foods can feel like torture. Literally. Instead, we want to factor in our favorite foods with intent and structure them into our overall eating plan. For example, if someone is eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s a day to take the edge off the stress of the day, instead of going cold turkey and pendulum swinging from one pint per day to zero (hello feelings of deprivation), this person’s strategy may be to eat one mini-sized ice cream per day to start. Even two of these per day would be a vast improvement over the previous habit. The key here is to find the middle ground with shifting behavior instead of fostering the all-or-nothing approach to managing emotional overeating. The goal is to move the needle from perfection to progress and to find the middle ground with our food choices.
Managing emotional eating isn’t about eating perfectly or omitting our trigger foods as much as it is about unveiling what our deeper need is in the moment and actively working to re-direct our attention to a non-food alternative. These strategies are key for taking back the reins in an area that can feel frustrating and powerless. Seeking out support can go a long way toward de-mystifying this process.