If you have been overcome with emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, and boredom at this time, you are not alone. What’s happening in the world and in each of lives is new territory. As we adjust to making our ‘stay at home’ life the new normal, it is easy to rely on what makes us feel good. Engaging in emotional eating is something humans tend to gravitate toward because it is dependable. We know the response that will happen when we eat a specific food and for a moment of time, feel safe. Often the strongest emotional eating cues occur when we are feeling emotionally at our weakest. This however does not mean that YOU are weak.
There are ways to overcome emotional eating so that overwhelming thoughts of food and eating does not control you.
Before we can think about changing our habits regarding emotional eating, we need to first start paying attention to the events, emotions, environments or other triggers that turn this on for us.
Ultimately, we know that if we have learned to cope with emotions via food, aka become emotional eaters, we have moved away from recognizing and processing the actual emotional component. A variety of different emotions can manifest in cravings. The more we bring awareness to what we are feeling in an emotional moment, the more we can start to allow ourselves to cope with difficult emotions in healthier ways other than eating.
Begin to pay attention to what comes up for you during emotional moments. Pinpoint the exact emotions, events or environments that are triggering you to eat (bonus points for writing these down). Think about the ‘stories’ you are telling yourself in those moments.
One of the most simple, yet effective, measures for working through cravings is deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing requires no fancy equipment or apps, just your body in that moment.
If you’re new to deep breathing, a common first technique to try is called the “4-7-8” method, which instructs the person to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, then release in a slow, steady breath through your mouth for 8 seconds. Then repeat, we recommend for at least 4 cycles.
If you can, it is advised to practice this technique while siting or laying down in a comfortable position. This simple breathing exercise can help reduce anxiety as well as lower the stress response hormones that often trigger cravings. For more information, search “4-7-8 breathing”, there are more resources and demonstrational videos to view.
In the moment you notice a craving and a strong emotion arising, take a pause and take some deep breaths. Practice the “4-7-8” method, or your other favorite simple breathwork. Observe the shift that occurs when your stress hormones lower and your anxiety lessens. You will feel the pull to impulsively or emotionally eat reduce. Again, bonus points for writing down your experience in a journal.
Journaling offers something that typical meal tracking does not provide. When you identify an emotional trigger, write down everything that’s going on in that moment – time of day, your current surroundings, current topic of conversation, what you were doing in that moment (i.e. social media, watching the news), who you were with, and how you were feeling prior to feeling triggered. When the feeling of wanting to eat becomes heightened, take a moment to pause and physically write out what you are experiencing.
Using food as a coping mechanism is a method to bury uncomfortable emotions. Whereas journaling is a physical exercise of getting those uncomfortable emotions out.
When you are noticing you have been triggered and the only/best option feels like food will solve that – take a beat and grab your journal. Jot down any emotions you are feeling at that time and allow yourself to give yourself grace and understanding that those emotions are perfectly OK to have.
Also take a quick gauge on hunger or fullness levels. Sometimes when we are hungry, it causes anxiety and heightened emotions. Eating is not off limits in these situations but be mindful. If you are hungry think of when your last meal or snack was and eat accordingly. Give yourself permission to trust this process.
We often fixate on ‘what’ we are eating to the detriment of other extremely impactful eating experiences: how we eat, where we eat, when we eat. Without addressing these factors, we are disregarding human nature which thrives on routine and habits.
Take a moment to evaluate some of your current emotional eating triggers. Be curious about the places you typically experience these cravings. Are you in a particular room of your house? Or the timing – have you noticed it’s often after you arrive home from a stressful day of work and walk through your kitchen? And have you held the stress and emotions of the day in, then reached home or elsewhere and found they flow out via sugar, food, alcohol? Our brains are wired to create a loop of feel-good hormones which create a Pavlovian-esque cascading effect, to the point where we are no longer aware of the dependency we have on these choices.
The silver lining is the realization. We know that even healthy habits can create their own ‘habit loops’ and that we can rewire some of our most powerful triggers for emotional eating by changing how we are engaging in our mealtimes, where we are eating (and drinking) and when we are consuming vs. not.
Choose one triggering habit to rewire related to how you approach eating. For example: Schedule a real lunch break of 20-30 minutes and eat your meal at a table, without electronic distractions (NO working while eating! NO videos, NO phones! YES conversation, YES peace, YES satisfaction!). If you find this task difficult, note the reasons why you might be relying on distractions during meals. How is this habit serving you? Another example: Eat earlier in the evening. We often eat less than we physically need during the day and we know physical hunger will compound emotional hunger and make evenings especially tough.
The practice of eating mindfully brings the mind and body’s full attention to the action of eating.
First, slow down. It can take up to a minimum of twenty minutes for the satiety hormones released by the gut to reach the brain that signals the sensation of fullness. When we eat in a rushed pace, a seemingly “normal” portion may not feel as satisfying – thus increasing the likelihood of eating past the point of natural satiety. If you find it uncomfortable to slow down and take the full time, note without judgment the feelings that are triggering you to speed eat.
Bring mindfulness to your meals by putting your utensil down between bites and allow yourself to cue into how the foods are affecting each of your senses.
1. Sight – Use your eyes to notice the appearance of your meal. There is a reason the phrase “We eat with our eyes” exists. The perception of appealing foods tastes better. This is also why food photography is such a big business on social media platforms. Aim to plate your meal in an attractive manner. Plus, this is can be an opportunity for you to change up the meals you are making to increase the variety of colors, shapes, sizes, etc.
2. Smell – Notice the different aromas of the foods on your plate. If you are having leftovers, aim to eat them fully re-warmed. The molecular changes that occur by applying heat releases more airborne particles that fill olfactory cells that ultimately, increases the pleasure of the food. Consider the difference between fresh, hot out of the oven chocolate chip cookies vs. packaged or cookies purchased from the store. It makes a big difference!
3. Tactile – Take in the sensation of the textures between how the foods feels in your hands (if using) and the way the textures feel in your mouth, on your tongue, and between your teeth. Notice the ways foods are crunchy, crispy, silky, smooth, chewy, etc.
4. Sound – Food has noise. As you are eating, pay attention to how the food sounds as you are cutting, chewing, swallowing, etc. It can be a helpful technique to bring your awareness to the eating process in order to slow you down at meals.
5. Taste – The different adjectives to describe taste are nearly infinite. Cue into the sensations of tastes you are experiencing is affecting your experience while eating. The four main tastes; sour, bitter, sweet, and salty (along with the fifth umami or “meaty”) are just the beginning. Aim to understand how the sensation of tastes change your perception of your experience while eating.
Take a food or meal, and journal how that food stimulates each of your senses. You might notice a different experience with a food you commonly eat while doing this exercise. For extra credit, do this exercise with a food you tend to emotionally eat.
We hope that these tips will help you gain control during this unique and challenging time, and that you find yourself able to take your new mindful eating skills with you when things return to ‘normal.’
For more support, schedule 1:1 with a dietitian and counselor at PRO Medical.