Eating is more than something we do to nourish our bodies with vital nutrients. It’s also an activity we do out of habit, like nail biting, hair twirling, or finger tapping. And sometimes, we habitually turn to food in response to certain emotions. Whether you feel angry, sad, bored – even excited – food can act as a buffer against these emotions, something 82 percent of us know all too well.
Emotional eaters know that it’s easier to stuff down our feelings with each bite. We know that the fleeting “high” we get from food blocks the pain or discomfort of dealing we might be feeling, even if only temporarily. We also know better; in the long run, we still feel bad and we know that we shouldn't eat for purely emotional reasons. But that knowledge isn’t enough to stop what feels like an addiction to food and eating. So where do you start if you want to stop eating emotionally?
It may be cliché, but the first step is awareness, recognizing that you do eat emotionally – and WHY. Each time you reach for foods (or even feel a craving come on), ask yourself, “Am I really hungry or am I just responding to something else that is happening?” If hunger isn't the reason, it’s not always easy to pinpoint the reason why you feel like eating. Tracking your food can help, especially if you note the times you eat and how you were feeling before, during and afterward. By tracking your food (and related notes) more regularly, you could notice trends, like a tendency to overeat on Mondays, for example, and then pinpoint your true feelings from there. Ask yourself what it is about Mondays that leads to overeating (Stress from getting the kids to school? Anger over going to a job you hate?)
Notice if you tend to munch in the evenings. Is it out of boredom, loneliness, or an unhappy relationship? Journaling in addition to tracking your food intake, can help you examine the causes of eating episodes so you can pinpoint your feelings.
While emotional eaters soothe themselves with food to avoid feeling and examining uncomfortable emotions, that gratification is temporary – and still painful, just like the emotions you’re trying to avoid. But if you learn to recognize the emotional triggers that lead to eating, you can also learn to stop emotional eating before it starts by choosing healthier ways to deal with your feelings. Here are some alternatives to eating that can help you deal with three of the most common emotions that can lead to eating.
Stress and Anger
Stress is part of our everyday lives, and it can create the same physiological responses as anger, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. If you are eating as a response to anger and/or stress, some of these activities will help you calm down and deal with the issue at hand, instead of covering it up with food.
Remove yourself from the stressful situation. If you’ve had an altercation with a friend or family member, take some time away from each other to calm down and get your thoughts together. Make a list of what you want to say to the person with whom you’ve had the conflict, and revisit the issue later when you’re both calm.
Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing has been shown to reduce blood pressure and promote feelings of calmness. Try this simple breathing activity any time you need to de-stress.
Exercise. It’s a known stress buster and you may even find that it helps you deal with anger. Go for a short walk outside, hit some tennis balls, or push around some heavy weights at the gym – these are all constructive ways to deal with stress and anger.
Listen to music. We can all think of some songs that calm us down. Make a special CD or playlist that you can turn to when you need it. Identify this as a trigger of emotional eating.
Prevent stress from happening again. If mornings are so busy that you’re barely able to get out the door on time, put some time-management skills into practice so that you don’t have to rush or feel stressed each morning.
Sadness and Loneliness
These two emotions often go hand in hand. Loneliness can result in sadness, and sad people can often become withdrawn. Especially if you’re dealing with grief or spending a lot of time alone, it’s easy to turn to comfort foods or soothe yourself with foods that you associate with happier memories. Instead, work to replace these uncomfortable emotions with a positive action. Learn to use alternative activities as sources of gratification. Just as you’ve learned to turn to food for a pick-me-up, you can learn to use other activities in the same way.
Exercise. It boosts mood, releases endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the brain), and has even been reported to be more addictive than drugs. Anything you do to get yourself moving will work. Leaving the house for a short bike ride or walk will also help you avoid food temptations at home.
Play with your pet; animals have unconditional love and promote health and emotional wellness, too. If you don’t have a pet, volunteer at a local shelter, which will expose you to both animals and more social interaction to combat your loneliness.
Write a letter to a friend. Reaching out to friends and family members, even if you haven’t talked to them in awhile, will remind you of all the wonderful people in your life who care about you. Spark up an old friendship!
Volunteer. People who volunteer feel better about themselves, and it’s hard to feel down on yourself when you’re helping others.
We have hundreds of TV channels, phones that surf the web, online social networks, and movement-sensing video games, but when it comes down to it, we still feel bored in our lives. Eating adds another layer to our entertainment options (like popcorn at a movie) but also becomes an easy thing to do when we don’t know what else to do! After all, eating is fun and enjoyable, and it passes the time. Fortunately, many boredom-busting activities don’t involve eating.
Pay attention to what you consume. Make a new rule that you will not multitask while you eat. That means no chips while on the computer and no ice cream while watching your favorite TV drama. If you’re going to eat, you’re going to be present and focus on the food you’re enjoying to help avoid mindless overeating.
Develop a new hobby. Even without cash to spare, you can learn to knit, join a local book club, or train for a 5K race. By scheduling these activities regularly, you’ll have plenty to do – and practice! Make a list of all the things you ever wanted to learn, from cooking to speaking a new language, and start investigating how to get started.
Read. We don’t spend enough time reading these days, and while you may claim that you don’t have the time, everyone has a few minutes here and there. Carry your book, favorite newspaper or magazine with you and steal minutes whenever you have downtime. Set a goal to read just 15 minutes each night, and you may find that stretching longer (and keeping your mind and fingers busy enough that they won’t miss eating).
Play a game. Remember how fun board and card games can be? Some even take hours! Bring out a fun game for your next party or set up a game night with your best friend. If you’re by yourself, crossword or jigsaw puzzles are a good alternative.
Connect with friends and loved ones. Some might argue that we feel so bored during this digital age because we’re missing real-life interaction and friendships. After all, if you can post on your friend’s Facebook wall or text your brother anytime, why call? Make a point to write letters, send personal emails, make phone calls and meet up with the important people in your life.
With an arsenal of activities you can do besides eating, you’re on the right path to stop the emotional eating cycle. You might not be successful every time, but if you accept your mistakes and move forward, continuing to work on your issues by tracking, journaling and distracting yourself in a positive way, you’ll overcome your emotional eating problems once and for all. With so many enjoyable experiences in life, food doesn’t have to take center stage. Make sure you are taking time to enjoy all of them equally!