01/08/2013

Emotional Eating – How to recognize, and tame it!

[h3 fancy=”true”]Emotional Eating sabotages all your hard work![/h3]

When weight loss professionals discuss emotional eating, you hear a lot of talk about stimulus control, stress management techniques, and cognitive re-framing. This is all well and good (and you’ll be hearing some of that here), but it doesn’t quite capture the actual experience of being caught up in an episode of emotional eating.

In a recent blog post we read, a blogger got much closer to capturing the experience when she described it as “waking up the Slumbering Beast” we have inside us.

This really is what it feels like… You’re doing OK, cruising along, when suddenly something happens that stirs up a bunch of feelings, and all of a sudden the Beast is awake and eating everything it can get its hands on. Or maybe it isn’t always that dramatic—maybe you just get bored, or start feeling a little anxious. There is nothing going on to distract you from that vague sense of impending doom that always seems to be lurking just under the surface.

Even that little bit of free-floating anxiety can be enough to wake the “Beast” up and set it on the prowl for something to eat. Or it might be as simple as getting home from work or school, or finding yourself alone for a little while, after a hard day. Whatever the trigger might be, the “Beast” isn’t about to go back to sleep without doing some serious eating first. Or so the story normally goes.

 

To tame the emotional eating Beast, you need to first recognize it…

This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.

Emotional hunger can be powerful. As a result, it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for that can help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.

Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).

Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.

Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.

Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.

Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.

Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

 

Now you’ve recognized the Beast is Loose: Getting It Back in Its Cage

The bad news here is that will power has little effect on controlling emotional eating. From a psychological perspective, the shift into emotional eating mode is usually a “state-dependent” event, which is a fancy way of saying that it involves shifting into a different state of consciousness (or persona) with its own independent set of emotions and related thinking patterns. For a little while, you literally aren’t your normal self, and the normal tricks you use to manage your behaviour and thinking may not work.

The good news is that your Emotional Eating Beast is pretty dim-witted and you can trick it into going back where it came from without too much effort, if you know how to do it. Here are some tricks that usually work:

1. Play the Stalling Game. Your Beast has a very short attention span, and if you can manage to stall it for just a few minutes on its way to the kitchen, it will often forget why it woke up in the first place, and happily go back where it came from. So, instead of trying to fight it and tell it that it can’t have what it wants, just tell it to hang on for five minutes and wait until you’re done doing what you’re doing. If necessary, you can usually get away with stalling like this 2-3 times before things start to get ugly, and most of the time, that 10-15 minutes will be plenty long enough for your Beast to forget the whole business and go back to sleep.

2. Play the Distraction Game. If your Beast doesn’t fall for the Stalling Game, you can still use your superior mental capacities to keep the upper hand. The key here is to keep in mind that what your Beast really wants isn’t food, but emotional comfort. If you can find ways to comfort yourself that don’t involve food, the need to eat will go away very quickly. Find something you enjoy doing that’s simple and easy to do right away. Listen to soothing or inspirational music, take a hot bath or a nice walk around the block, grab the phone and chat with a friend, or do some inspirational reading — better yet, jump in the car and come to your favourite class at the gym.

3. Play the Substitution Game. Even though the Beast may seem powerful and overwhelming, it is just as afraid of you as you are of it. It knows full well that you can and, someday, probably will just tell it to go take a hike, and that will be the end of the game. In the mean time, demand some sort of compromise you can live with. If you keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks that won’t kill your self-respect, and you let the Beast get its hands on them, then you can both stay relatively happy—until that day when you’re ready to finally toss the Beast out for good.

4. Keep a Journal. Probably the hardest to do – but best weapon against the Emotional Eating Beast! Every time you exercise and eat – write it down. When eating also write down how you are feeling at the time.  Think about why triggered your eating – was it physical hunger or emotional (described above). After a while you will start to see patterns. Once you’ve identified these patterns you will really start to understand when the Emotional Eating Beast is about to strike. Then, you can use all of the tactics above to stop him dead in his tracks.