Most of us do it. Sad, angry, stressed or bored, the quickest and most satisfying "fix" to feeling better is often to reach for whatever's convenient to eat. Convenient foods are usually processed, packaged or vending machine-ready. Over time, emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a snack whenever you're angry or stressed, without thinking about what you're doing. That leads to a double-whammy: you likely then bear the additional burden of guilt about setting back your weight-loss goal so you repeat the unhealthy cycle---you overeat, beat yourself up about it, feel bad and overeat again.
To begin getting a handle on emotional eating, it is helpful to analyze the various influences on your relationship with food. Growing up, were you fed regular, well-balanced meals? Was food used as an expression of love, perhaps too much so? Were you left to fend for yourself because parents were preoccupied with their own issues? Was food withheld as a punishment or over-used as a reward? What kinds of messages did you get about weight, body type, attractiveness and desirability?
Why ask these questions? Because when feelings about food are not conscious, we are more likely to be controlled by the old conflicts behind the feelings. As an example, you may overeat as a way of identifying with a beloved parent who coped the same way. You may favor junk food to rebel against someone who always criticized your weight. These emotional hooks can continue even if your adult life is one of financial security, supportive family members and access to good healthcare.
Here are some suggestions for addressing food issues:
Be a Good Parent to Yourself
• This mindset reminds you to maintain a loving, compassionate attitude toward yourself, which is necessary when you want to change compulsive behavior. You may be able to control your eating with a rigid diet, but this approach can back-fire.
Keep a Food Log
• As you get in touch with your physical and emotional needs, you will become better at recognizing when you are truly hungry versus wanting food to soothe a mood. Keep a log for one week in which you record what you eat and what you were feeling just before you ate. Look for patterns as they emerge: what and how much you ate, the time of day when the craving occurs, are you at work or at home, with friends or alone. Look for activities--like watching TV--that trigger unhealthy eating.
• Sometimes, the best solution is not to deny the craving but to work with it. Start by eating some healthy food such as a piece of fruit, some yogurt or a meal if you skipped it. Then, if you still decide to have the treat, allow yourself to enjoy it. You are moving towards healthier eating while gradually weaning yourself from the emotional state.
Rate the Craving
• On a scale of 1 to 10, ask yourself how much you want that snack? If it is over six (i.e. a strong craving), go ahead and have the snack. If it's less, try to delay the impulse. Maybe it will disappear.
Surround Yourself with Supporters
• It's hard to change a bad habit unless the people around you support you. Ask friends at work to bolster your waning resolve when the Duncan Dougnuts show up. Ask your family to support your efforts by keeping the chips and popcorn in the cupboard or better yet, not buying the tempting snacks to begin with. Keep a bowl of fruit near the TV or a supply of filling snacks in the refrigerator. And banish the soda!!
Don't Focus Too Much On Outcomes
• Don't sabotage your efforts by forcing results, such as losing a certain amount of weight. The goal is to introduce a self-reinforcing and friendlier relationship with food. Just like any relationship, this one will take time.
Written by Victoria Balenger, Ph.D.
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