Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating
“I’m sooooo hungry” I say to myself as I rummage through the pantry in search of something that will satisfy this deep desire for food. Nuts- no, oatmeal- eww, eggs? No WAY not today…. If this sounds familiar, you may be dealing with emotional hunger instead of physical hunger.
It can be super hard to tell the difference between the two sometimes, but chances are when you are craving for something sweet and gooey like a chocolate chip cookie or some ice cream or one serving of anything just doesn't seem to be enough to satisfy you, then there may be something more to it than your body’s actual need for fuel.
Are you stressed out, upset, bored or in need a of a distraction? Many of us struggle with emotional eating or attempt to cure emotional holes or needs by treating them with food but that is not a long-term answer. In order to help avoid eating when we don’t really need food we need to figure out some ways to tell if the hunger pangs we are feeling are true physical needs or simply an emotional desire for food.
Real Physical Hunger should not be ignored.
-is your tummy rumbling?
-will any food satisfy your need to eat?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then you need to eat. Choose a healthy snack, sit down with it, eat it mindfully and slowly so that your body has time to register the food before you decide you need more. Fueling your body is super important but rarely does the physical need for food cause us to make unhealthy choices, so when you really do need food for fuel it should be easy to make healthy choices. Eating good food when you are truly hungry, and stopping when you are full will help you maintain your energy throughout the day.
If instead, you are craving a specific food, or especially unhealthy snacks then it may be emotional hunger you are feeling. If you just want to put food in your mouth but you don’t know what you want or why, it may be your mind rather than your tummy creating the need. Even when we know that it’s not a physical need that we are feeling, it can be difficult to ignore it. Try to have healthy snacks on hand so that if you are unable to move past the cravings even after trying some of my ideas, at least you don’t end up feeling bad about giving into them and end up feeling even worse after eating. This negative feeling created by giving into these unhealthy cravings can create or continue a damaging cycle of tying your emotions to food and can be very difficult to break out of.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, don’t despair. There are some things you can do to try and break this cycle or change the habit of emotional eating. One of the first steps is to identify your triggers. Do certain people, places, situations or feelings make you want to eat? Do you eat when you are sad? Or when you feel you deserve a treat? Do you use food to reward yourself or console yourself after a particularly good or bad situation? Do you eat to destress or do you find yourself mindlessly crunching on chips as you replay a conversation over and over in your head? The triggers are different for us all, but if you can start to identify yours and then take time to acknowledge those feelings, give them room or permission to exist in your mind and heart and try not to bury them under a pile of unnecessary snacks than you will start to loosen the ties between the eating and the emotions.
We each need to find ways to do this for ourselves, perhaps starting a journal to write in or carving out some time to meditate and process your emotions safely can help you identify the trigger, process the raw emotion it created, and then release it. Meditating might seem an unlikely solution to hunger, but if your hunger is a product of stress or emotions meditation or other forms of relaxing can help reduce stress and in turn help us control or decrease emotional eating.
Sometimes, you may find that simply identifying the true emotion you are feeling is not enough to keep you from wanting to treat it with food as medicine. Sometimes the emotional eating has been our answer since childhood and it’s overwhelming to think about what else could be an answer, but breaking these habits is the key to changing the pattern of your life. Finding a substitute for the food as your cure is an important strategy to break the pattern of allowing negative emotions to control you.
What can you do instead of turning to your pantry? Call a friend, take a walk, change the scenery by getting outside. Fill your emotional need by doing something that makes you feel good, happy and satisfied like painting or singing, put on a favorite album and dance around your house like no one is watching, read a book, exercise, or draw a nice warm bath. Find things that will make you feel happy, distract you from your negative emotions or create a healthy way to celebrate your successes. There is so much to do in this world that has nothing to do with food, so put down the ice cream or the chips or the pizza you will regret in an hour and go find your happiness by living. Make happiness your priority, not food.