This article was recently featured by Get the Glow author Madeleine Shaw as a guest blog. Feel free to comment or get in touch with me if it resonates with you.
Do you regularly find yourself having no control over what’s ending up in your mouth? Do you look to food to transform your mood? Do you find yourself eating when you’re not physically hungry? If so, you’re very likely clinging to the white knuckle ride rollercoaster that is emotional eating.
Emotional eating creeps up on us and, before we know what’s happened, it dictates our lives, calling the shots on when and what we eat. It’s a phenomenon which I think is far, far more common than anyone knows. It often goes on behind closed doors or in parked cars or when everyone else has gone to bed. People find themselves imprisoned in a destructive cycle as they eat privately and silently, often without the knowledge of their loved ones.
Every day, I meet intelligent, successful, hardworking, caring people…who are utterly controlled by food. They often tell me they know exactly that they are being overtaken by a compulsion to push food into their mouths. They also know what it’s doing to their health. It’s just that it’s beyond their power to help it. Despite what their reason and intelligence tells them, they’re simply unable to stop from doing it again. And again. And again.
So, what’s going on here? Well, we often try to nurture ourselves through food when what we really crave is affection, love and attention. But packets of biscuits or a daily fix of sweets make for a hollow crutch – one that is harming you in every way, both physically and emotionally. The tension builds, you succumb to the urge to eat (maybe promising yourself this will be the last time), you get a brief “release” or momentary satisfaction…followed by an assault of negative emotions, ranging from disappointment and remorse to guilt and self-disgust.
The thing with emotional eating is that it never promises what you hope it will. Trying to satisfy emotional needs that cannot be met by food, or using food to numb yourself just leaves you feeling emotionally hollow.
And every time you channel your emotional needs into food, you underscore the message to yourself that you are weak and unable to control yourself. Not the sort of self-talk you want to be listening to.
Emotional eating is actually so deeply ingrained that it’s hardly a conscious habit anymore. We learn from childhood that food is a treat for when you’re hurt, and we instinctively pass it onto our own children. It’s reinforced consistently in films (how many times have you seen a woman upset and reaching instinctively for the ice cream?).
Before I became a health coach, I worked in marketing communications for 22 years – frequently with food companies. I saw first-hand how they aim to establish a connection between food and emotion in the consumer’s mind, whether it’s the (false) promise of a sense of security, comfort or belonging.
How to combat this insidious, creeping habit? Using willpower to try and get the better of emotional eating doesn’t work. All it takes is a stressful day at work or a row with our partner and the willpower sails out the window.
Instead, it’s important to acknowledge that, whatever emotional hurt you are trying to soothe, food can never be the answer. Emotional eating simply diverts your attention from whatever it is you don’t want to feel. We have a tendency to suppress unpleasant emotions but it’s important to recognise that your emotional eating is telling you that something needs your attention.
Here are some approaches to try next time it hits.
Give yourself permission to feel
Start to notice what it is you’re thinking and feeling when you get overtaken by that urge. Pause for a minute before you stuff the first mouthful in. Take a few deep breaths. Now ask yourself: “What is it I’m really hungry for?”
Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed; or lonely; or taken for granted; or rejected. The key to ending this pattern, then, is to stay with yourself and allow yourself to accept those emotions, however ugly they seem, and feel them fully. If you approach your feelings with kindness, your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to eat things that work against it to protect you from your feelings.
Prioritise fuelling yourself properly
As much as emotional eaters eat when they’re not hungry, they often don’t eat when they are actually hungry…which only fuels the urge to eat rubbish later on. Make the switch by ensuring you’re sitting down (not picking at leftovers while standing up) to three nourishing, delicious meals a day (including lots of healthy fats which will make you feel full and also improve your mood).
Suss out your triggers
Think carefully about when it is that you’re vulnerable to emotional eating. Maybe it’s in the evening when you’ve got through another stressful day and you just want to reward yourself. Knowing your triggers will allow you to get one step ahead of emotional eating so you can either avoid those situations…or at least make sure you’re armed and prepared for the next time.
Emotional eating can be a self-sabotaging reaction to feeling deprived, so look for ways you can bring pleasure into your life on a daily basis. Stop worrying about everyone else and prioritise your own wellbeing and happiness. What makes you feel good? Sitting with a cup of tea in the garden, listening to the birds? Go and do it. Going for a drink and a laugh with your mates? Organise it. Reading a trashy novel? Make time for it. A vase of fresh flowers? Treat yourself to ones you love…and pause and enjoy them every time you pass them.