If food is the highlight of your day, then you are probably living to eat rather than eating to live.
Food can easily become an accessible and engrained way in which we seek to reduce stress at the end of the day. In addition, food may provide the ‘false fix’ that insulates us from a deeper need that we are using food to fill. For example, food may be:
- a reliable companion
- an unconditional self-soother
- entertainment during an otherwise boring evening
- a sedative to help induce sleep when thoughts are racing
- a reward for a long day of work and/or caring for others
But know this: When a food craving doesn’t come from physical hunger - food will NEVER satisfy our true needs.
The tricky part is that using food to self-soothe in the moment provides relief – at least temporarily – or we wouldn’t keep reaching for the food under times of stress. However, this type of support in the disguise of a ‘false fix’ comes at a potentially high cost to one’s physical and mental health. Physically we may develop health issues related to chronic overeating, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Psychologically, the effects on our mental wellbeing can be just as dire in that if we are eating to numb out and disconnect from our negative emotions and experiences in life, we are also numbing ourselves to experiencing the positive emotions and experiences as well, such as passion, pleasure, and joy. Although it would be nice, we simply can’t selectively numb out our emotions. When we suppress our emotions, depression is usually bobbing its way toward us if it hasn’t already dropped anchor. Basically, depression is repression of emotion.
SO – what do we do if we find ourselves relying on food for salvation?
If food is more of a lover than a friend, then it’s time to strategically cut the co-dependent cord. And no, I don’t mean swear off the foods we love as this approach does not work for most people, but instead creates a ‘forbidden fruit’ mentality. Meaning, we will only want more of what we feel we can’t or shouldn’t eat. However, we can’t rely on willpower either, because that strategy will quickly fail due to the primal (not rational) dependency on food for coping.
So, you may be thinking - what IS the strategy? Well, the strategy will depend on the person and is based on several factors that impact our overall relationship with food, such as:
- the depth to which food is being used to cope with stress and how long it’s been the ‘go to'
- how much of one’s eating behavior is rooted in diet mentality
- current or past experiences living with the ‘food police’ where food is/was restricted or monitored
- if weight stigma and/or the ‘thin ideal’ is driving food choices
- food-related weight gain is fulfilling an important role of self-protection and insulation
There are, however, two key strategies that can be done no matter the complexity of one’s relationship with food that will help to lessen unhealthy eating patterns:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Often, we are focused on what we feel we have to give up in order to improve our health and overall relationship with food and as I mentioned before, that strategy rarely works long term. But, focusing on the healthy foods you can ADD to your daily intake is hugely impactful on both physical and mental wellbeing. You’ve heard the saying ‘we are what we eat’, well research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables actually improves our mood and mental state based on the vitamins and minerals our body is ingesting. If we are feeling better, our need to emotionally eat lessens because of the decreased need to self-soothe.
- Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is about eating with intention while paying attention and allows for recognizing and honoring hunger and satisfaction cues in the moment. It also allows for slowing down the pace of eating and to lessen auto-pilot eating. So, even if we turn to food to self-soothe, if we are present with the food rather than switching on auto-pilot, research shows that we are likely to eat less of that food. At H3 we use a Hunger/Satisfaction Gauge to help our guests begin this practice of mindful eating anytime an urge to eat strikes. It’s a skill to be developed and one that is crucial for healing our overall relationship with food.
Starting with these two strategies will help to begin the process of moving the needle toward honoring your true needs in the moment. Need more help? These strategies and much more will be taught in our two upcoming weekend intensives focused on helping people to take back the reins when it comes to their relationship with food. This weekend workshop is facilitated by yours truly and is designed to help provide an important springboard for learning to overcome emotional overeating. Feel free to contact me directly if you have any questions about this offering at firstname.lastname@example.org.