Emotional eating: let’s talk strategy

I recently wrote a page about emotional eating, which is a starting point if you want to get a better handle on the “what”  and the “why” sides of things. This article is about the how: for those who recognize that they struggle with emotional eating, have a basic understanding of what is going on, and have a desire to do something about it.

Increase Awareness and Engage Curiosity

The goal is to recognize the urge to eat emotionally before the eating happens, so that emotional eating can be prevented or minimized. But if we do find ourselves emotionally eating, all is not lost! This is, in fact, an opportunity. Information about what we do when we eat emotionally is valuable and helps us get a picture of what is going on.

  • Act like a scientist: Document when emotional eating is happening, how often, circumstances at the time: do you notice any patterns?
  • Practice meditation or yoga: What thoughts and feelings come up? Any repeats?
  • Write: When the impulse to eat emotionally arises, put pen to paper and write out your thoughts, emotions and anything else that seems relevant. What have you learned?

Deal With the Causes of Your stress, Whenever Possible

As Vancouver-based eating disorders therapist Michelle Morand suggests in the title of her helpful book: “Food is not the problem: deal with what is”. Take the opportunity to explore and address what is stressful in your life.

  • Are there any practical changes you could make in your life situation that would decrease stress?
  • Are there any issues that need to be resolved or worked through emotionally? More formal support such as counselling may help, particularly if stress is overwhelming or it’s difficult to see where your stress or anxiety is coming from

Practice Kindness and Self-Compassion

Judgment only intensifies shame and  decreases confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes it can be helpful to engage in a regular practice of regularly noticing and letting go of unkind thoughts rather than trying to be “more compassionate.”

Get in Tune With Your Body

  • Recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger and learn to detect the physical sensations of fullness. Taking time to pause and reflect before and after meals can help.
  • Have regular meals and eat enough to satiate hunger at those meals. Restricting portions and allowing too much time between meals or snacks can induce states of ravenousness, greatly increasing the likelihood of bingeing or eating emotionally, fuelled by feelings of desperation.
  • Eat a balanced range of foods that satisfy your body’s needs; a constant diet of salads, for example, can trigger intense cravings for prohibited foods.
  • Body-based therapies such as massage can help us be more aware of what our body is doing in response to stress.
  • Body awareness can help us intervene sooner in terms of eating behaviour; exercise can help discharge stress and promote feelings of relaxation

Try a Little Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural strategies such as delay and distraction can help minimize frequency and intensity of emotional eating.

Delay – Some folks find it helpful to work in terms of minutes (or in some situations, seconds) when the urge to eat emotionally arises. Try setting a timer for a short period of time, such as a minute,  where you can suspend emotional eating. Be realistic in terms of time, to maximize the chances of success. After the minute has elapsed, ask yourself whether you can do another minute, or even two, and continue on until the urge to eat emotionally has passed. While delaying, employ a distraction activity. Easy, engaging and self-soothing strategies work best, providing they’re psychologically healthy choices!

Diversify Your Coping Repertoire

This can sometimes be hard to do if food has become a coping fixture. Identify positive activities you once enjoyed or allow your mind to roam to things you are interested in, but have not tried yet.Understanding that no one healthy coping strategy works or is suitable for everyone, there are some great idea lists available online.

Increase Overall Life Meaning

Are there improvements that can be made in other areas of your life: Life choices? Your emotional support system? Relationships with others? Self care?

Having a stable life foundation decreases the likelihood of emotional eating episodes because life satisfaction is being derived from areas other than food. Also, emotional stability leads to less mental exhaustion, which means less need to reach for food to cope with feelings.

Limit Access to Trigger Foods

Having such foods at home, in purses, at the office, in the car, etc., can increase the likelihood of consumption. Even seeing them, when you were originally not in a mindset of thinking about food can trigger the desire to emotionally eat. Put away food when you have finished eating it, change your route home if passing triggering stores or restaurants, avoid stockpiling food in storage, etc.

Decrease Isolation and Seek Support

Identify your sources of support: friends and loved ones, meaningful social opportunities and counselling if you feel you would benefit from it.  Support from valued people in your life can act like a balm to relieve tension and stress, making emotional eating less relevant.

Be Realistic

Emotional eating can be a difficult habit to break, particularly if it’s a longstanding issue. Congratulate yourself for even the smallest successes and expect that there will be bumps along the way. This is a normal part of the change process.

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