Do you find yourself munching when you are not really hungry?
Do you find yourself using snacks as reasons to take a break from work?
Do you reward yourself with a treat when you finish a task — or use a treat to get you through it?
When you get upset about something, do you find yourself in the fridge or pantry to console yourself?
If so, you are experiencing emotional eating.
And we all do it sometimes.
Who hasn’t overeaten over the holidays because those favorite foods bring back good feelings? Who hasn’t mindlessly eaten to get themselves through a tough assignment? We all do this once in awhile, sometimes without even realizing it. We can’t always eat mindfully and with focus, savoring our food and stopping when we are perfectly satisfied. But for some of us, this overeating happens all too often, causing distress — and sometimes health problems.
When I see a client in my nutrition therapy practice, I often look at whether she or he is eating a balanced diet. These days, many clients are not eating enough carbohydrates. So many people are afraid to eat too many of them. Not eating enough carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — as well as not eating enough total food energy or calories — can be a set up. An imbalanced or inadequate diet may lead to low energy, cravings, thinking about food too much, and overeating. However, sometimes the foods clients eat seem to be in alignment with their nutritional needs, but they still find themselves binge eating or eating beyond comfortable fullness regularly. It’s frustrating and it really has nothing to do with their food choices much of the time. This is pure emotional eating. And it’s a growing epidemic, so to speak.
And why not?
Food is legal and readily available. It’s grounding, sensual, and only takes a few minutes out of our to-do list to engage in. But is that snack really what we are hungry for? Do our bodies need food at this moment — or are we really looking for downtime, stimulation, sensory pleasure, or soothing? Food can provide all of those things for us, but at what cost? Tuning in to what it is that we really want and need — in any given moment — is a practice. It is not easy — particularly if we are someone that is oriented towards serving or taking care of others. (I am all too familiar with this myself.)
I’d like to propose that the more we ask specifically for what we want and need — of ourselves and from others — the less we will feel the pull to put food in our mouths when we are truly not hungry. And the more we will feed ourselves nourishing food when we are indeed hungry, too.
One of the exercises that I encourage clients to do is to have them set an alert on their phones. (We carry them everywhere, so we might as well use them for personal growth, right?) The alert should go off at random times several times per day. When that alert sounds, the client has to stop what she is doing and tune in. She should ask: What is going on in my body? What am I feeling? Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Bored? Do I have to pee? Do I feel lonely? Cold? In an uncomfortable position? etc…
For many of my clients, these alerts may be the only times that they truly check in with themselves during the day. Some begin to notice when they are hungry earlier than when they are ravenous and just about ready to eat their best friend. It’s hard not to overeat when we get that over-hungry.
Some clients realize that as they work, play, connect, and engage in life, they forget to eat. After a full day, they find themselves starving — literally and figuratively. They may race off into more adventures in search of fulfillment, while denying themselves the food and reflective connection with themselves that they actually need for sustenance.
Some people do the random alerts exercise and discover that they are frequently in discomfort, but were never aware of it. This prompts them to get help for some physical injuries or digestive issues.
Some people realize that they want something, but they are afraid to ask for it. It’s easier to just plow ahead and take care of everyone else’s needs rather than tune in to their own.
When clients are helping professionals or parents, they often find it hard to stop and turn their focus on themselves. Eventually, they discover that when they take the time to check in and and take care of themselves (with a bathroom break, snack, short walk outside, stretch, deep breath, or whatever they need in that moment), they are actually better able to be generous and helpful to those around them.
Sometimes our little mindless snacks throughout the day serve that purpose. We’re trying to take care of ourselves some, but not too much. We don’t really take the time to think about what we really need in those moments — connection, touch, warmth, beauty, movement, fresh air — sometimes because we are afraid that we can’t get it or that we don’t have time to get it. But a nibble here will do…
I’d like to argue that we don’t have time to ignore our needs and desires!
If we do, it can create stress, exhaustion, resentment, an unfulfilling life… oh, and, yes, overeating and any of the health-oriented “perks” that come from that…
This week I worked with a client who reflected that she was binging or eating mindlessly after work on a regular basis. When we dug deeper about it, we found that she was using food as a way to “take off the day.” Food helped her get out of her head and into her body, transitioning her from work to home after a stressful day. There was a part of her that was so used to using unhealthy ways to cope with stress and transition, she didn’t really feel like she deserved more than a binge. When we did some imagining about what it would be like if she didn’t hold the belief that she doesn’t deserve the self-care, she was able to come up with an alternative to binging.
She is indeed hungry when she gets home from work around 4pm, so having an appealing, satisfying snack that could hold her until dinner was the first order of self-care. Then, taking a walk so that she could do something physical seemed like a good way for her to shift gears. She wanted to literally pound the pavement after a challenging work day. Walking helps her breathe deeply, slow down, clear her head, and transition from a day of taking care of others. She realized that thinking of physical activity this way was nurturing and would support her mental transition from work to home, as well as take good care of her body. The positive effects of exercise on our brains and bodies are well documented and she knows this. But it worked better for her to think of exercise as a “want” instead of a “should.”
It was hard for my client to ask herself for a healthy yummy snack, physical movement, and some self-care and transition time between work and home. It was easier for her to be careless with herself and operate the way she always has. Once she identified what she really wanted during that binge-filled afternoon time and was able to ask herself for it, she could come up with a plan for how to take care of herself. The challenge will be bringing consciousness to that time of day so that she can really make the change.
She still might need to contend with the part of her that feels undeserving of good self-care, but she has a plan and some compassionate, curious language to use with herself when that comes up. Having me to check in with around her progress helps her to take it seriously, and hopefully I’m modeling non-judgmental processing of her progress on these new afternoon practices. I’m seriously rooting for her and she knows it.
If you find that you aim to make food and self-care changes, but you just keep getting stuck, don’t underestimate the power of connecting with a nutrition therapist or other professional experienced in disordered eating that can help you non-judgmentally explore your resistance to change. Often our own self-judgement gets in the way of helping us make the changes that we want. It may also help to talk to friends or family about your new practices — or connect with a higher power or nature and ask for help. A little compassionate support often goes a long way.
The next time that you find yourself trolling for sweets or gobbling mindlessly when you aren’t really hungry, ask yourself, “What do I really want? What am I really hungry for right now?” Even if you can’t stop the eating, keep asking this question and stay curious instead of critical. Knowing your desires and needs is an important part of healing from compulsive eating. In fact, it’s an important part of healing from any disordered eating, even restrictive under-eating. When you know what you want, you can ask for it — of yourself or of others around you — and you can stop using food as an inadequate (albeit yummy and soothing) substitute. It takes courage to ask for what you really want and desire, as well as time to reflect and really get to know what’s inside. But it’s worth doing, no matter how long it takes. There may be many bumps along the way, but the result is not only freedom from disordered eating but a more passionate, heart-centered, satisfying life.