A Bad Aftertaste: Dealing with Emotional Eating 

Emotional (or stress) eating is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for those of us trying to lose weight. It’s the proverbial sneak attack straight out of left field, the unseen pothole on the path to success, the sucker punch to our healthy eating plan. We can make provisions for just about everything else: the treats that come into the office/ home; the impromptu lunch/ dinner date; the dinner party full of unhealthy choices, but emotional eating? That’s not our heads talking: that’s something more primal, more visceral and more out of control.

All of us develop coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations and emotional eating is one of many possibilities. Emotions and stress are part of everyday living. We have a fight with a family member; our boss gets on our case; unexpected bills or bad news: our anxiety and stress levels hit the stratosphere and we turn instinctively to our pressure release valve. Some of us chew our fingernails, pace, smoke, go for a run or eat our emotions. It’s a distraction like all of the other stress relievers: we’re so busy being focused on what we’re doing, we aren’t thinking of the problem that just got dumped on us that we don’t want to deal with. That’s the whole purpose: I’m avoiding my problem as fast as I can! All of these avoidance behaviors have drawbacks, some worse than others, but for those of trying to lose weight, emotional eating is a major pitfall.

In addition to distracting us from whatever our problems are, eating just plain tastes good. We aren’t focusing on whatever is upsetting us and we’re enjoying (usually) what we’re eating, so it’s a double benefit to us. The first and most obvious drawback is that avoiding the problem does not solve it, so even after we’ve finished the donuts, potato chips or whatever, we’re still stuck with whatever stress inducing issue triggered the eating in the first place; the second drawback is now we’ve probably overeaten and as result, we feel guilty, so the vicious cycle continues. The third drawback is that when we eat our emotions on top of what we normally eat, we have a tendency to gain weight, and the more problems we have, the more we stress-eat, and unfortunately the poor health that comes with obesity becomes one more trigger: we’re worried about our health, so we eat to relieve stress and the vicious cycle gets even more vicious.

Emotional eating is almost uncontrollable for a lot of us. Even if we try to be aware, how many of us find ourselves staring into an open fridge or pantry looking for anything to eat just because something stressful happened? If we become aware of our behavior at that point, we’re actually doing okay- we still have time to stop ourselves from mindlessly putting food in our mouths, but how many times have we suddenly found ourselves staring at the bottom of an empty carton of ice cream or an empty box of donuts? It’s almost an instinctive behavior that’s become ingrained in us over many years. It’s how we

console/ distract ourselves, when something bad has happened and how we reward or celebrate happy news. Food is our trusty go-to sidekick and even though we know that it’s hurting us to eat our emotions, breaking this deeply ingrained habit is not at all easy. Quitting emotional eating is on par with quitting smoking or any other addiction. Again, we’re running in circles: stress triggers the eating and the guilt over eating triggers the stress which triggers the eating. The band-aid approach is to replace the eating with something less harmful like walking or meditating, but ultimately, we have to find a way to deal with our emotions. Positive action is always the best way: a problem comes up and we move to solve the problem rather than avoiding it, i.e. the boss jumps all over us about

a project, and instead of not dealing with it, we take steps to move forward on the project. Unfortunately not all problems can be solved by us or anyone, i.e. a family member becomes seriously ill. This is the unpleasant truth and we have to learn to deal with unpleasant truths. Bad things happen; it sucks but there’s nothing we can do about it. Eating our emotions isn’t going to change this and it’s only going to compound our problems. Of course anyone who has ever had to deal with emotional eating knows it’s waay easier to say “deal with it!” than actually dealing with it! It’s like telling a lifelong smoker “ stop smoking!” and expecting them to quit cold turkey the next day. “Stop shoving donuts in your face and deal with whatever nasty issue is driving you to eat!” Not terribly effective, is it? Again, it’s a process. The first step is being aware that you are an emotional eater. How can you not be aware that you eat your emotions? Because even though there is the emotional connection (bad feeling + food = feeling better), there may not be the mental connection. I had never really considered myself an emotional eater. I was aware that I ate out of boredom and I took steps to change that behavior (this blog was actually one of those steps), but it wasn’t until I found myself staring into the open fridge after an angry phone call with my mom that I realized emotion was the only reason I was even looking for something to eat (I wasn’t hungry or bored, just upset).
Once you make the connection, it makes it a little easier to catch yourself before you finish the Ben & Jerry’s. When something emotional happens (especially something stressful), you know the urge to eat is coming and this is where you can begin taking steps to counteract it. The band-aid approach is usually the easiest way to begin tackling it: find something else to distract yourself from the negative situation. In my case, after the phone call with my mom, and I realized was looking into the fridge to avoid dealing with the stress, I knew I had to substitute something else for eating. Since I had already done a similar process with evening boredom, I used one of those techniques: blogging, journaling, doing my nails, posting online, etc. Finding an enjoyable new (or not so new) distraction is the key. It’s a baby step, but it gives you a stable if temporary place where you can feel safe while you begin to do the real work of learning to deal with your emotions. When you feel the stress and emotions building and there’s the urge to find something to eat, that’s when you make the switch: instead of eating, open up Facebook, take a long hot shower, practice deep breathing or yoga, Tai Chi or whatever your safe substitute is. If you miss that moment and catch yourself in the middle of a cookie or bag of chips, don’t berate yourself, because learning a new habit takes time. Getting down on yourself is just one more stress that will drive you back to the chips and cookies. When you do catch yourself, put away the food and dig out the yoga mat (if your life is really emotional, just leave it out! I have my go-to MFP on all of my devices, so it’s easy for me to log on!) Awareness is the most important step because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is! Once you are aware of your emotional triggers, that’s when you start making the positive changes. Start substituting the better behavior for the emotional eating. Once your emotions start making the connection (stress + yoga = feel better), emotional eating becomes less and less of the go-to pressure release valve. Then you can start dealing with your emotions from a safer place. Instead of feeling guilty for eating, you are actually doing something positive. For example, yoga has its own benefits aside from keeping you from overeating. It really is a good way to center your mind and body, strengthen your core and relieve stress, but sooner or later, you are going to have to deal with whatever problems you have. That may require counseling or some kind of therapy or maybe just a lot of yoga and meditation. Only you can make that decision, but one thing is certain: eating your stress and negative emotions just creates more problems than solutions.

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