When I first started shifting my Holistic Nutrition practice towards helping women heal from their disordered & emotional eating and making that more well known on Instagram (where you can usually find me cooking, dancing while cooking or dancing while cooking with my cat, Duncan), I couldn’t believe the outpouring of messages I received from women who had previously suffered or were currently suffering.
During my “10 year career” with disordered eating, I didn’t really have a “label” for what I was experiencing. I just thought it was normal to restrict myself from eating certain foods and then feel so deprived that I would binge on all said restricted food. That would usually be followed by feelings of guilt, shame and disappointment and promising myself that I would “start fresh on Monday”. Sound familiar?
That’s part of the reason why I share my story and other insights on emotional eating through my social media channels – it’s the reason why I do what I do; to help people become aware of their relationship with food, where it stems from and how we can make with it. Because I spent WAY too long hating my body and wasting all of those years where I could’ve just accepted my body the way it was and ate foods that brought me joy instead of diet coke and 100 calorie snack packs. By the way, those 100 calorie snack packs? They might be 100 calories but you’ll need about 5 of them to actually feel somewhat satiated, and even then, you’ll be hungry in an hour!
Regardless, there’s many triggers and reasons why you might be turning to food as a coping mechanism (aka emotional eating) and you may already be familiar with them if you picked up the December 2017 issue of Canadian Living that I’m featured in (woohoo!) I recognize that many of you might be reading this long after December 2017 and might not actually get the chance to pick up your copy so I’ve summarized 5 common reasons why you might be emotional eating and what you can do to cope.
5 Reasons You Might Be Emotional Eating
To be honest, I don’t know anyone that hasn’t NOT eaten out of boredom before. If you’ve ever noshed on a bag of chips or popcorn while watching TV and when you weren’t hungry, this one may resonate with you. No one likes being bored, especially in this day and age where we’re conditioned to constantly be stimulated and entertained. It’s actually an uncomfortable feeling to sit with. So instead of sitting with it, we might turn to food to bring us a tiny burst of pleasure for just a brief moment (because we know we can always count on the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitter rush that food gives us).What can we do instead?
Ask yourself “Am I physically hungry, and if I’m not, what other need am I trying to satisfy?” It may take a while for you to discover that you’re actually just bored but if that’s the case, maybe the need you’re lacking is the need for FUN or EXCITEMENT in your life. Now work backward and see how you can bring more of that into your life! Alternatively, you might want to rate your hunger on a scale of 0-10, 10 being post-all-you-can-eat-buffer and 0 being so-hangry-going-to-eat-my-arm. We want to aim to eat between a 3-4 – not too hangry, but not too full either. With that said, don’t stress about it and honour the signals your body gives you!
If you’ve ever crammed for exams before, you’ll know this one is very real. I still notice with myself sometimes when I have a task to do that I’m not entirely thrilled about, I’ll feel the urge to go to the kitchen and find something to eat (and YES, this still happens to Emotional Eating practitioners!) The difference is that I know how to intervene during that process now because I can recognize that I’m not actually hungry, but using food as a distraction to get away from the stress of the task I’m working on. When we’re stressed, we actually produce more cortisol which is the hormone responsible for increasing appetite, due to the fact that we’re in “fight or flight mode”. This is a primitive instinct we used to go in when we needed to flee from oncoming dangers like a bear, however now we find ourselves in this mode when we’re just trying to sift through our inbox! As a result, we crave high-carbohydrate foods which are the body’s preferred and quickest form of energy. So if you’re blaming yourself for having no willpower, be a bit more gentle with yourself and understand that your biology has simply taken over.
When you find yourself in this state of stress, one of the best things we can do is turn to deep breathing to shift ourselves from that parasympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) to our sympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). This can be as simple as taking 5 deep breaths by breathing in for 5 seconds and breathing out for 5 seconds. Try it now! I can almost guarantee you’ll feel instantly relieved!
Pass the Ben & Jerry’s, will ya? We all know that sadness can often be a trigger for emotional eating if we’ve ever gone through a break-up or a traumatic event. Nobody likes to sit in the uncomfortable feeling of sadness though, so naturally, we turn to food to remove that feeling right away (because food has the power to do that – temporarily). What we have to remember is that keyword – “temporarily” – because that temporary relief you might receive while drowning your sorrows in food often results in feelings of guilt and shame which cancel out any positive feelings or relief you might have experienced from emotional eating.
Instead, try sitting in your sadness and just embracing it. The intensity of an emotion is said to last for 90 seconds, and then another emotion is introduced. But if we can sit with that and understand what is triggering it, we can strategize a plan to start getting to the root of what’s really causing the sadness. For example, we might be turning to the Ben & Jerry’s during a breakup, but it’s not about how delicious that Chunky Monkey Ben & Jerry’s is or the breakup – it’s about the feeling of loneliness, the rejection, the isolation. Okay, so how can we counter that? Break it down, then build up a plan!
Have you ever heard of “comfort food”? You know, Mom’s chicken noodle soup or Grandma’s famous lasagna? Turning to food for comfort is a form of emotional eating, but what this teaches us is that food can solve our problems. But remember, it only does so temporarily.
Instead, get to the root of what’s triggering your need for comfort. Maybe you’re in need of intellectual stimulation? Or maybe you’re in need of a hug? It’s okay to ask for both of those things – you are human, you have needs; but it doesn’t imply that you are “needy.”
Many people carry anger around with them without even realizing it. This is common for those who find it difficult to express how they are feeling or find it uncomfortable to sit with their anger-induced emotion, so instead, they turn to food to reduce the intensity of that emotion. But just like any other form of emotional eating, you may find you turn to food to soothe your emotions but the consequences of feelings of guilt, shame and disappointment will cancel out any form of relief the emotional eating provided for that brief moment.
Instead, try making a list of the things that are annoying you. You might be surprised by the actual root cause! Sometimes physically releasing that anger out of our body can be helpful as well – screaming into a pillow, or punching a pillow. Maybe going for a run or a workout would be helpful. While you’re doing so, mentally visualize the anger leaving your body. It may seem silly, but it actually helps to bring relief and calm your mind.
If you manage to see this in time, be sure to pick up your copy of the December 2017 issue of Canadian Living to see the full feature on pg. 80-83.
Photos by Danielle Giroux Photography