Ideally we’d all go through life waiting to eat until we are hungry, stop eating before we are full, and eat foods that nourish our bodies. At least most of the time. In this paradigm, we’d feel amazing in our bodies and fully enjoy, guilt free, those rare moments when we splurge on that delicious cheese cake or that large serving of fries!
All of that fuzzy food math — thinking about how you ate too much yesterday, so now you need to skip breakfast today, which of course is going to lead to binging later, resulting in you having to go to the gym — will be gone.
The question of whether or not we ‘deserve’ that blueberry scone at Starbucks will seem as silly as asking if we ‘deserve’ a new dress. Sure, you could buy one, but do you really want that particular dress right now? Maybe, but then again maybe not.
However, the reality is that often we find ourselves eating for reasons other than hunger, and depending on how frequently this happens for you, and how big of a perfectionist you are, this deviation from the ideal can be quite painful.
Below I outline five steps to stop emotional eating. The idea is certainly NOT to put you on a strict diet with rules that you must obey leaving you feeling deprived. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The point is to stop feeling powerless around food, and instead find your freedom.
You are wanting to eat for a reason. Don’t try to take the food away without giving yourself an alternative solution.
Recognize why you are wanting to eat.
Get in the habit of taking a moment to check in with yourself before each meal or snack and seeing if you are actually hungry and if not what is the reason you are wanting that food right now. It can be useful to keep a food-mood journal for this purpose. Common reasons people eat, other than hunger, include stress, boredom, exhaustion, sadness, anger, cravings, habit, peer pressure, or fear you won’t find more food soon enough.If your answer is not hunger, move to the next step.
Ask what it is you are actually needing and take productive action.
You can have that food if you want, but the point here is to actually solve the issue not just put a band-aid over it—one that you’ll have to rip off later especially if emotional eating is a painful habit for you or you are struggling with your weight. What is a non-food related action you could take?Ideas include:
Stress: take a quick 5 minute break and meditate, practice belly breathing, try out Tapping (or the Emotional Freedom Technique), realize that stress is too much “future” and bring yourself back to the present moment to the single task at hand, or spend some time prioritizing and ask yourself what you can let go of. If you have more time you can get some exercise, dance in your living room, get a massage or a pedicure, or take a bath with some Epsom salts.
Boredom: if you are at work, set time goals for yourself with small rewards. For example, work straight for 20 minutes and after you can get up and go chat with your friend down the hall. If you are at home then find what types of activities are fun for you! Reading, sewing, playing music, listening to music, dancing, singing, playing brain teaser puzzles, or watching a movie.
Exhaustion: take a break and get some rest. First, you will do your job much more productively and efficiently, but second it is well worth letting a few bad things happen to protect your sanity and your health. It won’t be as terrible as you think, and you have much more to gain!
Sadness: journal about this issue, let yourself have a good cry, and ask what you can do to bring more joy into your life.
Anger: get in some vigorous exercise. No need to make time to go to the gym! You can do this right away at home or in your office. Make sure you have some props on hand if this is a common trigger for you!
You’ve eaten an ‘avalanche’ food (e.g. a food that once you pop you can’t stop): recognizing that this is the problem is half the victory. Work to avoid that food, or just toss the rest away — flush them down the toilet, pour coffee grounds on them if you have to, you know what to do.
Here are a few other reasons you might eat other than hunger:
Habit (for example, eating at 1:00 pm even if you aren’t hungry because that’s when you typically eat lunch): realize it is possible to take a break and not eat if you aren’t hungry. If you consistently aren’t hungry for lunch or dinner consider eating a smaller breakfast or lunch.
Peer pressure (for example, heading out to a pizza joint with friends, but you had a late lunch and aren’t hungry): tell your friends you don’t eat when you aren’t hungry.
Fear that you will get hungry and won’t be able to find more food in time: For some of you this might seem silly, but for some of us (myself included) this is a real thing. First, I would ask yourself if this is true. As adults we have quite a bit of time to react between when we first feel hunger and when we are painfully hungry (or hangry as my husband calls it). Second, in the modern world we are never that far from more food. That being said, there are some careers and locations where this might have some truth, in which case plan ahead and bring the food with you to eat when you are hungry.
Get to know your common triggers and keep this list handy, or create your own, so that you can build the habit of taking productive action.
Realize what usually triggers your emotional eating and work to resolve these issues.
What typically sets off your emotional eating episodes? Is it coming home to a messy empty house? Is it conversations with family members? Is it stress from work or at home? Are you trying to do too much? Is it dissatisfaction with how you look? Whatever the cause, work to find a healthy balance by setting boundaries with others or your job, taking action or your personal goals, and working on self-acceptance and compassion for yourself and others.
Leave the guilt at the door and eat consciously.
If you know you only need the food emotionally yet you decide to go for the food anyway, that’s fine too! But do so consciously and enjoy it! Guilt and beating yourself up have no place here. We tend to check-out when we are emotionally eating, which means you might eat a whole slice of cake and miss out on the whole experience! Not very satisfying. To help yourself eat consciously, I suggest you always put the food in a dish, go and sit down in a calm place, and savor every bite! There is something about eating M&M’s out of a bowl, calmly, savoring each one, guilt free, that takes the binge right out of it. Plus, it helps you be conscious of the serving size and honest with yourself.
Pay attention to how you feel after you eat.
So you just sat calmly on your sofa and polished off a bowl of potato chips, which is allowed. You can do that! Did it make you feel amazing? Or what if instead you decided to wait until you were hungry to eat and choose a salad instead. How does that make you feel? Paying attention to how you feel after you eat will over time take the desire out of emotional eating. You will start to associate feeling good to healthy eating habits and finally find your freedom around food!
Do you have other suggestions for alternative actions or another emotional eating cause you want to share? Tell us in the comments below!
P.S. Check out my article on Intuitive Eating if you are wanting to know more about listening to your body when it comes to deciding when and what to eat.