Dr Tracey Evans
5 Steps To Overcome Emotional Eating
As soon as emotions come into play, do you find that your first thought to solve the problem is food? If the answer is YES, let me explain why this happens and what you can do about it, so read on!
Negative emotional stress takes many forms, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, trepidation and of course anger to name but a few. These can sneak up on us pretty quickly and when we are least expecting it and let’s face it, they are uncomfortable feelings that we would prefer not to deal with head-on! So what do we do, we look for something to soothe our feelings ad distract us from those feelings.
Food is a comfort for many people, from a young age we are given food when we are sick, food when we hurt ourselves, foods to celebrate and food to commiserate. So, our brain recognises that food does in fact make us feel better even if this is just for a short time.
The problem is eating food does not eliminate the root problem that caused the stress in the first place, it is simply a coping mechanism that many use to dull an ache. The type of food we typically crave when under stress is calorie dense foods like those full of sugar and fats
Emotional Eating Cycle
So for anyone reading this, it is very possible that you are in fact overweight, am I right? Many emotional eaters that I work with are over weight or in fact obese. They follow a very specific pattern of eating to calm and soothe; this leads to shame, guilt and self-disgust and leads to further eating to solve the feelings that arise as a result.
Because the foods eaten are high in calories, this will lead to weight gain BUT there is another problem. The more you eat, the more comfort food you need to soothe, this is because the foods are like a drug, you are chasing the high which needs more and more of the your drug (comfort food) as time goes on — and with it comes more weight gain. This is a cycle that can rapidly grow out of control, along with body weight and fat gain.
Overcome Emotional Eating
So now we have talked about what emotional eating is and why, let’s take a look at how you can take back control.
1. Identify triggers
If you do not know what causes emotional eating then it is difficult to move forward and change. Often we mindlessly reach for the food to soothe, I challenge you to start raising awareness. Before eating take on board the 4 Ws — What, Where, Who and Why.
What — what happened before you felt the urge to eat?
Where — where were you?
Who — who was with you?
Why — why did you think of food, what would you be avoiding?
This is a really good strategy for unpicking the root cause of emotional eating. You may find a common pattern. For illustrating my point in this article, I will be using the following example:
What — Your boss asked you for your latest sales figures
Where — Work, office
Who — Boss
Why — You are worried that they are not good enough. You feel a rise of anxiety and eating a cake will calm you for the moment and take the anxiety away.
In this example it is clear that anxiety about receiving poor feedback from the boss has led to well used behaviours surfacing to temporarily soothe the anxiety, this is very common. The problem is the anxiety is not addressed and the problem has not gone away.
Now that we know food is being used to calm levels of anxiety it is important to address the anxiety. Here we introduce an intervention in the form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is incredibly powerful and focuses on grounding you in the present.
First take a few deep and calming breaths
Activate the senses — what can you see right now? what can you hear? what can you feel (shoes on feet/material of top on skin)? what can you smell? and finally, what can you taste?
By this time the anxiety should have diffused, if not repeat the exercise until you feel calmer
3. Question beliefs
Now that you are feeling calmer, you need to take a closer look at what caused the anxiety, what were you trying to avoid with food. Ask yourself the questions:
What am I anxious of?
Is this a reality?
Will food solve this problem?
What am I anxious of? My boss will be disappointed with my results
Is this a reality? My results aren’t as good as they were last week, but I did work hard. I also have a few new clients in the pipework which is a positive.
Will food solve this problem? No, it will not and I will likely feel disappointed in myself if I do eat the cake as I am trying to make healthier choices.
So by challenging your thought process you will be able to further rationalise the problem. The anxiety has been reined back in with a more honest and intelligent assessment of the issue. When I say intelligent I am talking about the fact you have activated the cortex and are using this in dissecting out and analysing the situation. Anxiety comes from the ‘ancient’ part of our brain and needs to be challenged.
The more you practice these exercises the more resilient you will become to emotional eating. It important that you have a tool kit ready for when the urges kick in, once you have raise awareness, intervened and questioned your beliefs, it will become much easier.
It will take time to start with, I recommend writing in a journal and then you may see that specific people or places lead you to seek out sugary or fatty foods, you can then explore the reasons behind it by using the steps outlined above. This is important to help you move forward.
There may be other strategies that you can use as part of your tool kit such as taking a walk, reading a book, doing a meditation, having a bath, doing a puzzle — find a ‘tool’ that works for you that will soothe your emotions in place of food. Build your tool box up and this will provide you with emotional resilience.
This is such an important point to make and many of us do not practice it enough, we are very quick to focus on our negatives and neglect ourselves. Remember, we are not perfect as human beings so we don’t get t right all of the time and that is OK. If you slip back into old habits, forgive yourself and pick up where you left off, don’t ruminate over it.
Also, the habit you are trying to avoid such as emotional eating does not define you as a person, it is a tool that you have developed to cope with difficult feelings. If you are reading this article, it probably means you are looking to grow out of these behaviours and that is a positive — you are seeking to learn and make changes and that is an important part of the growth mindset - so be kind to yourself. Thank yourself for the willingness to improve your habits and acknowledge it takes time, just as creating old habits does.
Implement these 5 steps and you are well on your way to overcoming emotional eating, I wish you well on your journey and if you would like to know more about how I can help you overcome emotional eating, reach out to me. I personally coach clients through their journey, bringing about a better relationship with food. I provide emotional support along with the nutritional advice, help to address the WHY of eating not just the WHAT and importantly, I guarantee success not failure because as you can tell, I am passionate about this! If you want to know more contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org