Over the years I have worked with many clients who wished to lose weight. I have seen them utilize various “diets” and lifestyle changes, work with dieticians, coaches and personal trainers, and undergo bariatric surgery, cognitive- behavioural therapy (CBT) and hypnotherapy. During this time, I have learnt a lot from them, and from my own life experiences. A common issue, that I have found to often get in the way of attaining the desired goals, is ‘emotional eating’ (EE). This is why I wrote my new e-book; ‘Emotional Eating Learn to be free! A guide to living well and soothing yourself in ways other than food.’ This blog includes a few excerpts from the book.
What is ‘emotional eating’?
EE refers to seeking comfort and soothing emotions, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, boredom or loneliness, through food. It may be that you are facing a difficult problem or dealing with stressors such as relationship, work or financial issues, and food becomes a way of dealing with the issues or stress. Food may be viewed as a reward, and stress, low mood or anxiety can also trigger overeating.
EE may include thinking about food a lot of the time; eating when stressed, anxious, sad, angry, lonely or tired; rewarding yourself with food; not knowing why you are eating; eating until feeling ‘stuffed’; feeling guilty about over-eating; or having a ‘love-hate’ relationship with food.
How do we learn that food is comforting?
- As infants, when we are upset, we are soothed with food or drink, so we learn about eating for comfort from a young age.
- It may also be that a caregiver shows love through preparing food.
- Individuals may experience some form of trauma as they develop, such as bullying, neglect or abuse, and quickly learn that food can be turned to as a comfort.
- In addition, in our society we learn that we should get rid of uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible. Somehow, we are sold the message that we should feel good most of the time, and food becomes a means of trying to achieve this (although it is actually not possible!).
How can we deal with EE?
There are many therapies that we can use to assist in reducing EE. Remember too that everyone is different, and one approach won’t suit all.
- Be aware of physical factors that may trigger EE e.g. being unwell, sleep deprived, skipping meals, headaches, pre-menstrual.
- Identify any environmental or social situations that may trigger EE e.g. cold weather, partner going out or away, work functions, going to the movies, meeting new people.
- Be aware of emotions that are triggers for you to eat, i.e. reflect on whether you turn to food at times of stress, or when you are tired, bored, sad, angry or lonely. Also take note of any thoughts that act as cues to eat.
- Consider keeping a food diary for a few days or a week to identify what you are doing, eating and feeling. This will help you make links between your moods and eating, or any other triggers.
- Do a check when you choose to eat. Ask yourself whether you are hungry, and work on identifying the origin of the hunger. It may be physical or emotional, i.e. head hunger vs. belly hunger, or perhaps mouth hunger!
- Surf the urge to eat.’ Managing EE urges can be like surfing a wave on a board. If you watch a wave, it forms, rolls into shore, then disappears. When you surf the wave, you stay just ahead of it on your board. An urge to eat will do the same and we can ride ahead of it, knowing that it will go away.
- Relieve boredom and distract – get busy and do something to get your mind off eating. Do you like to knit, read, watch movies, walk, garden, write, see friends, clean out cupboards, surf the Internet?
- Avoid tiredness – make sure you get enough sleep and rest. We need about 7-8 hours sleep a night. Try going to bed at a regular time, avoid exercise too close to sleep, establish a wind-down routine at night, or perhaps use some relaxation strategies when you go to bed.
- Focus on your overall health and wellbeing – drink plenty of water, and give yourself time out to relax and get some sunshine. Consider doing some yoga, having a massage or reiki. Exercise is a great way to stay fit, relieve stress and lift your mood, and it helps strengthen and tone the body. Consider having a physical check-up if you are struggling with yo-yo dieting, binge eating or EE.
- Supplements such as antioxidants, omega 3 and 6 oils, zinc, magnesium and chromium may help you feel better, improve your wellbeing or help soothe your nervous system.
- Some people may find it beneficial to take serotonin boosting Hypericum, the B vitamin inositol/ Vitamin B6, or amino acids such as tryptophan and tyrosine; or magnesium as a relaxant [Note – it is best to consult your GP or naturopath regarding these.]
- Using essential oils may also be helpful to modify how you feel. For example, lemon and peppermint are said to lift mood; lemongrass and lavender reduce stress; and rosemary eases mental fatigue. The smell of vanilla is reported to reduce appetite. [Note – do not use if sensitive/allergic to these oils, or pregnant.]
- Talk with others g. a friend, a therapist, your GP, your dietician or online groups.
Eating is a behaviour, and we have often learnt to eat in particular ways through conditioning in our earlier lives – that is, through our experiences we learn the connection between eating and soothing. To change our behaviour in life requires effort, so work on developing the mindset that in order to change EE behaviours, effort will be required, but it will ultimately bring rewards! Contemplate your reasons and make a commitment to yourself, and your wellbeing, to work on change.
To change behaviours, in general:
- Consider which behaviours you want to change, and why these changes are important for you.
- Look at possible alternative behaviours and choose behaviours that might fit for you.
- Break down these changes into steps and consider what you are willing to put up with in the short-term (unpleasant feelings and thoughts) to feel better in the long- term.
- Look at whether anyone can help you.
Focus on a ‘non-diet’ approach:
A great many of the clients I see in my practice have tried every diet imaginable, deprived themselves and experienced yo-‐yo dieting. Often, a cycle of dieting or restriction and overeating results. To help reduce the cycle, adopt a different approach:
- Take a non-‐diet approach. When someone says ‘I am dieting’, their words imply deprivation. A non-‐diet approach avoids that sense of
deprivation and encourages you to look after your whole self, including your health.
- Choose foods and drinks rich in nutritional value, with a balance of protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans and lentils) and complex carbohydrates (grains, oats, brown rice, some fruits and vegetables) to keep the body and brain functioning well.
- Have regular meals and snacks – make sure to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and some snacks in between. Your body and brain need regular
energy for optimal functioning.
- Be mindful after dinner. The evenings can be a danger time in terms of EE for many. Remember that if you eat healthily during the day, you will not need to eat a lot during the evening after dinner. Some people find that it is helpful to adopt the attitude that the ‘kitchen is closed’ after dinner, or keep busy with a book or knitting. Another option is to have a warm drink later in the night, such as a cup of green or herbal tea, or a planned snack.
- Don’t deprive yourself. Depriving yourself of food will not help, and it may increase food cravings. So, have regular meals and healthy snacks,and allow yourself your favourite foods in smaller portions. Have plenty of healthy options around, such as plain nuts and seeds, blueberries, plain crackers with peanut butter, yoghurt, apples …… The work of Australian doctor, Dr Rick Kausman, may be very helpful to read, as he suggests that individuals be the healthiest they can be, without being deprived of food or quality of life. He has done excellent work around mindful eating and behavioural change away from yo-‐yo dieting. Refer to his book If Not Dieting, Then What? and www.ifnotdieting.com.au. Substitutes may be helpful, for example ordering green tea instead of latte or having a small amount of dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Also avoid too much caffeine if you tend to be stressed or anxious – it is a stimulant and can make you feel more stressed.
- Relearn to eat intuitively. As young children we intuitively know when weare hungry or when we are not. Growing up, we often lose this skill, especially when we diet. Intuitive eating involves rejecting dieting and making peace with food, as well as honouring your body’s signals including hunger and fullness (remember that this means satisfied and not stuffed full), and respecting your body. To eat intuitively, you need to be aware of any harsh internal voices that drive you to diet or judge what you are eating. The internal intuitive voice is more nurturing – it picks up signs of hunger and fullness, and enables you to listen to what your body needs. Eat without distraction and check-in periodically to see if you feel satisfied. Look after your body with regular exercise and self-‐care, e.g. having massages. [You can read more about this approach in Tribole and Resch’s, ‘Intuitive Eating’ (2003).]
- Above all, enjoy what you eat!
One of the most important lessons you can learn is to soothe uncomfortable emotions in ways other than food. It is important to first recognize the feeling and name it, as this will allow you to manage the feeling in a positive way. Then, if you are feeling anxious, rather than soothe the distress with food, you might relax with a walk, music or meditation. If you are feeling down, you might walk in the sunshine, listen to music, talk with a friend or write your gratitude list. If you are feeling bored, you can get moving with chores, exercise, rearranging furniture or watching a movie. Journaling is another great way to soothe emotions. As you express what has been happening and how you are feeling in your writing, your mind is also processing the feelings. Refer to my blog on journaling at www.drcatehowell.com.au for some guidance and ideas on how to journal. In the same way, talking to someone about feelings can help too.
See the e-book for many other ideas about managing uncomfortable emotions.
Remember that overcoming EE is a bit like climbing a hill. You make progress upwards, and sometimes you will slip backwards, but it is unlikely you will slip back to the bottom of the hill. Remember that you are still heading in the direction you want to go, and if you do slip, you can learn from this, and gather yourself up again to move forward. It is also important to celebrate your successes – you might share them with friends, use positive self-talk, watch your favourite movie, or get that item you have wanted for a while.
I hope that you enjoy the new e-book, ‘Emotional Eating Learn to be free! ‘ available on the website.