When I was growing up my parents used to fight a lot about silly things. I also had teachers that I did not like very much and I was not particularly popular at school. But I did have one thing I liked to do: EAT! My mother used to have a “nosh” bag on the kitchen counter in the corner, and everyday when I came home from school, I would reach my hand in the bag and pull out my reward. My mother did not set a limit on how much I could eat, so I pretty much ate as many potato chips or Fritos as I wanted. We also had a pull-out bread drawer in which there were sweet snacks such as chocolate bars, ring dings, yodels and donuts. I usually at those at lunch though, so when I got home I was more in the mood for the crunchy salty foods. Oh yeah, and in the evenings, I would have ice cream for dessert. I especially liked the ice cream, because it not only tasted good, but it felt so good going down because of its smooth and creamy texture. These kinds of foods became my best friends, because I could always count on them to make me feel better. And feel better I did, even though I was usually the chubbiest boy in my class. The occasional comments and put-downs were a small price to pay for the enjoyment I got out of eating my favorite junk foods!
Throughout middle-school and high school I continued to indulge in my favorite foods, and this also became my favorite hobby. In the evening, I would plan out my “binges.” I was stealthy about it, because I did not want anyone to know how much I was actually eating. The only person who might have known was my mother, but I trusted her not to judge me for it. I remember one day I had laid out an especially well prepared snack for myself, in which I was just about to indulge, when we got unexpected company. I was so embarrassed by my generously portioned-out snack that I quickly put it away. Even then, I knew that I had an eating problem and it was something that I was supposed to hide from other people!
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you eat when you are bored, angry, stressed and / or depressed? Do you eat to celebrate? Do you use food as a reward? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then perhaps you are an emotional eater too? Lets face it, there are varying degrees of emotional eating. In fact, there are so many types of emotions and eating triggers associated with emotions, that there is a huge gray area here. Perhaps the question to ask yourself is, “When I eat as a direct result of a particular emotion, does it negatively affect my weight, my health and most importantly how I feel about myself?” If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then I would say that your emotional eating is negatively affecting your life.
So lets move on to what to do about “emotional eating.” The first thing I would recommend is to be honest with yourself. Every time you eat, you need to ask yourself whether or not you are eating because you are hungry or because of a particular emotion. If you are eating a meal, then you also need to ask yourself if you are over-proportioning your meal and making poor choices because of an emotion. Sometimes this is very insidious, because you may be justifying over-paragraphing by saying that it’s dinner time and you are very hungry, when you are really saying, “I could eat the salad and grilled chicken, but I deserve the roast beef, gravy and mashed potatoes because I worked hard today. ” In this instance, you would be using the food as a reward. In another instance, you may be feeling bored or depressed. You start eating something, and after “the 1st domino falls, the rest just keep falling.” The next thing you know, you wound up eating the whole box of cookies or the whole bag of potato chips. One possible rationalization is the old “I blew it, so I might as well keep going!”
There are hundreds if not thousands of scenarios in which emotional eating can take place. Sometimes it’s a combination of emotions and situations. For example, you are at a restaurant celebrating with your friends, and the next thing you know you have just had 2 frozen margaritas, 4 usefuls of chips and salsa and now the server brings over the potato skins and you are the first person to try one. You see, maybe you do not see this as emotional eating, but when you really think about it, there were probably some feelings and thoughts that convinced you that eating and drinking to excess in this situation was okay. Even if you planned the whole menu out, then I would say you are still associating eating and drinking with the emotion of happiness and the idea of celebrating. On the other end of the spectrum, you might automatically reach into the pantry for a cookie or graham cracker, and the next thing you know you have ateen 10 or 15. You see, it was probably boredom or stress that triggered the first one, but it was so automatic, that you might not even have identified it as either of these emotions.
There are many feelings or emotions that trigger eating. Why? Well for one thing, eating often feet good, that is, while you are doing it. So that short term good sensation makes you feel better, but of course you need to continue eating in order to keep that good feeling alive. Add to this, the addictive nature of sugar and salt, and you have a serious situation on your hand that is bound to get worse if you do not “short circuit” it. That tends to be the nature of addictions. We have to keep doing whatever it is we are doing in order to make that good feeling last. However, once the addictive behavior stops and we have finished that particular episode, we feel both physically and emotionally spent. So we promise ourselves not to repeat that behavior until after course the next time we do in order to make ourselves feel better again.
So lets talk about ways to short circuit emotional eating. For one thing, when you feel an emotion coming on that makes you want to eat, recognize the pattern. Predict the future. In other words, ask yourself what will happen if you take that first cookie, cracker, chip, piece of candy, etc. “Will I be able to stop at 1 or 2, or will I want the whole bag?” Chances are that you will not be able to stop at 1 or 2, because then the good feeling associated with eating will disappear and you will want to keep going. After all, that is why you are eating in the first place! Now here is the key. When you are calm, feeling good and not in the middle of an emotion that triggers eating, ask yourself what you can do coupled eating to deal with negative emotions whenever they arise. Once you have a list of options, you can now try one or several of these options whenever a negative emotion surfaces. When you have one that works and you stick with it for a while, it can then become your new habit rather than eating. They say it takes 3 weeks for a new habit to take hold. So imagine undoing many years of emotional eating in only three weeks. That sounds pretty good to me!
So what I would encourage you to do right now is make a list of all the other things you like to do between eat, and whenever you feel like you want to eat because of an emotion, choose something from your list and see how it works . There are probably many activities that you like to do that you do not associate with eating. That would be a good place to start. For example, I love to eat when I watch TV, but I never eat when I am on the computer. So if I feel bored and do not want to read a book, I can get on the computer. I know that if I turn on the TV, I will automatically want to eat!
A few other strategies would be to only keep healthy foods in your house, so you are not tempted by the unhealthy ones when you are in a weakened emotional state. In addition, if you have a variety of healthy snacks around, at least you will have healthier choices from which to choose, you should decide to eat in response to an emotion. That may not solve the problem of emotional eating, but you are less likely to feel bad about yourself if you reach for an apple or a cup of Greek Yogurt when you are feeling depressed, rather than a bag of chips or a box of cookies. Makes sense, does not it?