How to Overcome Emotional Eating
The late night popcorn binge, the midafternoon square of chocolate, the 4pm cheese and crackers or chips and salsa... Emotional eating is whenever we eat for reasons other than hunger – stress, boredom, anxiety, loneliness, excitement, sadness...
There's good reason we turn to food to deal with difficult emotions. Eating is grounding and settles our nervous system. When an emotion is too intense to feel, the fastest way to numb it is too dull ourselves with food. When we're overcome by mental disturbances, food brings us back into our bodies and out of our heads.
Eating for celebration has been a part of human culture forever. From Thanksgiving dinner to Easter brunch, humans are hardwired to use food as a way to cultivate specific states of being. While eating for celebration is fine when we only do it a few times a year, we get ourselves into trouble when it becomes our go-to coping mechanism for dealing with challenging emotions or simply to "reward" ourselves at the end of the day.
When we eat without being hungry we put undue stress on our digestive system which can lead to weight gain, blood sugar issues, mood swings, low energy and an inability for our body to burn fat. Furthermore, emotional eating often leads to guilt, negative self-talk and shame which creates even more stress and perpetuates the cycle. That compounded with the fact that what we eat when we're emotional eating is usually not the healthiest options and results in a slew of other negative effects.
However, emotional eating is simply our bodies just trying to take care of us – to make us feel better, even if it's not the healthiest or most effective method for doing so. Luckily we can re-train ourselves to deal with emotions in a more life-affirming way.
There are 2 ways we can overcome the emotional eating habit: 1) short-circuit the habit in the moment with an instant fix 2) build in long-term solutions to minimize the conditions that cause emotional eating in the first place.
Short term fix
The first step to short-circuiting a food craving is to take a few deep breaths. This has been proven to be the #1 method of boosting willpower in the moment. Once we're able to create some space when we have an urge to eat, we're better able to pause and plan instead of habitually react and find ourselves elbow deep in the cookie jar.
When we use food to find emotional relief it's simply the wrong tool for the job. Unless we're physically hungry, it's a not a full belly that we're after, but fulfillment of an emotional need. So the question becomes: "What are you really hungry for?". Take a moment to explore what emotion is present. What is the feeling you're experiencing? When you identify the emotion you "name it to tame it". You're able to step back and get some space from your experience and skillfully choose a more appropriate response.
If you're experiencing anxiety and it's grounding that you're looking for - can you step outside and place your bare feet on the earth? Can you take a short walk, do a restorative yoga pose, roll on a foam roller or give yourself a massage?
In the past I would snack when I needed a break from my work. Now I do a few handstands or hang from a pull-up bar. Another option is to make a cup of tea or do a few household chores.
My latest obsession is tapping. It's an incredibly effective solution for honoring what you're feeling and then releasing negative thoughts or limiting beliefs. You can learn more about tapping here.
Long term solution
When your body is in a state of balance you're better equipped to deal with the ups and downs of life. You don't get as rattled as easily and you're able to come back to center more quickly. Creating a balanced body-mind is created through a healthy lifestyle of daily habits around proper nourishment, exercise, sleep and self-care.
Having a regular meditation practice also teaches you to be able to observe your thoughts and emotions without engaging in them. You learn to become the witness of your experience which enables you to gain perspective and to uncover the deeper need that you're trying to fulfill with food or other numbing behaviors. Once we become aware of our patterns, we can take steps to dismantle them. Meditation also dissolves stress, anxiety and the states which difficult emotions often arise from. It's preventative medicine at its core.
Lastly, following healthier eating guidelines like meal spacing and sticking to 2-3 square meals a day helps to regulate blood sugar and prevent food cravings. Eating mindfully helps us notice when we're full so we don't overeat. Incorporating a variety of tastes and nutrients allows our bodies to feel fully satiated so we don't end up rummaging in our fridges when our bodies are really craving more vitamins and minerals.
Emotional eating is a sticky habit and can take some exploration and experimentation to find a lasting solution. However, it's well worth it not to be a slave to the habit.