Emotional eating is quite common. It affects a large percentage of the population and it is a way for many of us to avoid addressing our underlying feelings.
Reflect on the last time you gave in to emotional eating. When asked if eating helped soothe your feelings, your initial response might be, “Sure it did, at least for a little while because I was distracted from feeling the loneliness. I was distracted from having to solve an issue or a problem with my relationship”.
Food can distract you for a little while but as soon as you finish eating, the original hurt tends to resurface, and it is often accompanied by a feeling of guilt or self remorse. You might add to your original upset because you caved in and you did what you told yourself you were not going to do anymore.
Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of one of these emotional eating patterns, no matter how much logic you try to apply to it, the feeling and the habit are so strong that you just “go for it” in spite of your best judgment.
Wired to Want Relief
What I would like you to do first is to get in touch with the strength of your emotional eating urge and then understand that the reason the urge to emotionally eat is so strong is that it is a pattern that has been habituated and repeated over and over. It has burned a neural pathway in your brain. This is important to understand.
The first time you started eating emotionally may have been when you were only five or ten years old. The first time you did it, it created a new neural pathway in your brain. The next time that situation happened you may not have thought about going to food right away. You may have done some other things and then remembered that the last time this happened that food provided relief.
As you repeat a behavior over and over a shortcut pathway is burned in your brain.
So, instead of having to go through five or six different neurons to get from stimulus to response, you jump right from stimulus to response. In this case, you jump from emotional pain to eating. So as soon as you feel angry, afraid, upset, or hurt, you reach for food without even consciously thinking about it.
That is the habit you need to break.
There are a lot of techniques you can use to break this pattern (see below for a list). Changing your mindset happens slowly, so you can really grasp each shift and get involved with the process. The reason we spend so much time on creating a new, positive mindset is because spending time on this thinking process creates a foundation from which we can change our behaviors around food and our unconscious emotional responses.
Creating New Neural Pathways in Your Brain
The goal is to do something just a little differently each time you feel ready to eat emotionally.
See if you can pause just long enough to start a question and answer dialogue with yourself. You must ask yourself honest questions the moment you see yourself in danger of emotional eating.
“Is reaching for this donut going to solve the problem of my boss not appreciating me at work?”
The answer to that is, “Well, of course not. It’s not going to solve that problem at all.”
“So, is it productive to eat the donut?”
If you ask, “Will it allow me to temporarily be distracted from that problem?”
The answer is, “Yes.”
So, the next question you can ask is, “What action can I take right now that can soothe me and keep me in alignment with my core values?”
Comforting Actions to Replace Comforting Food
- Run a hot bath, put some lavender oil in, and luxuriate in the bath. It is an aromatic, soothing way to comfort and distract you.
- Go for a short walk or jog in nature to clear your mind.
- Use an app to do a 3-10 minute guided meditation (some good apps for this are Headspace or Insight Timer).
- Put on some music or a podcast to distract you for a short period.
- Call a friend or write in a journal to express and release your feelings. Often just getting your thoughts and emotions down on paper can help rid you of them and decrease your stress response to bring you back to a place of balance.
- Engage and lose yourself in one of your favorite hobbies: artwork, reading, knitting, gardening, dancing, swimming, yoga, theater, sports, etc.
- Do three deep belly breathes, in through the nose allowing your belly to rise more than your chest for about 5-6 seconds. Hold the breath and then release out of your mouth for another 5-6 seconds.
- Focus on your breathing and feelings of appreciation as you visualize a time and place that brought you happiness and peace. Transport yourself in space and time back to that place.
This last option is one of the most effective choices.
It does not matter whether you are actually experiencing something or remembering experiencing something; your nervous system responds the same way regardless. You can quickly shift yourself from being in fight or flight mode into the calm part of your nervous system. In the wizard brain mode, you can access your high-level thinking and stay aligned with your core values.
Once you come out of the visualization ask yourself if you still feel compelled to use food for comfort and what your best course of action might be.
For more information on how to do this type of visualization exercise check out The Quick Coherence® Technique for Adults at www.heartmath.org or take a look on the Naturmend website to find certified HearthMath practitioners to help guide and teach you these principles at https://www.naturmend.com/heartmath/.
There is a lot of stress and anxiety during the holidays and especially in our current times with the daily changes and unknowns of the pandemic. People need to cope and develop coping mechanisms for handling the stress. What most folks turn to are either stimulants – drugs, caffeine, various prescription and nonprescription drugs, gambling, foods/emotional eating so they do not have to think about the stress.
These are all distractions and are not managing the stress. The aim should be finding ways to help mitigate the effects of stress on your body and that put you into a state that supports you, that rebuilds you.
So, even though this holiday season may look quite different than the last. There is certain to be no shortage of emotions and ways of coping with those. I challenge you to identify your own triggers and emotional eating responses and retrain your brain to turn to other, health promoting responses so that you may enter a new year with a healthy body and mind. This is not an easy thing to do but if there is one thing that 2020 has given us, it’s the time to be able to reflect on our lives and identify things that may not be serving us so we may have the courage to make the shifts for a happier and healthier us in the years to come.
Adapted by Megan Hoffman, RD with permission. © Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, MS, DC, CCN, DACBN, Institute of Nutritional Endocrinology (INE) www.Dr.Ritamarie.com
Megan Hoffman has always had an interest in health and wellness which is what drew her to study to become a dietitian. Her passion is strongly rooted in the power of belief in nutrition for optimal health and wellness. She believes in a whole-foods eating approach and creating and fostering a healthy relationship with food. Read more about Megan here.