By Suzy Glaskie, Functional Medicine Health Coach and founder of Peppermint Wellness
With a global pandemic to cope with, it’s not surprising that more and more of us have found ourselves looking to food for some respite from the stress. It’s natural for us to seek comfort to numb uncomfortable feelings such as fear, anger or grief – and a super-sized tin of biscuits can feel like a comforting friend to us.
Battling the constraints of lockdown, coupled with separation from loved ones, you may well have found yourself munching away when you’re not physically hungry – maybe to stave off boredom or loneliness. Many of us have found ourselves in the trap of looking to food to transform our mood.
Emotional eating creeps up on us and, before we know what’s happened, it dictates when and what we eat. We are no longer in control of what goes into our mouth.
We try to nurture ourselves through food when what we really crave is affection, love, attention – or simple human connection with another person. The thing with emotional eating is that it never promises what you hope it will. Trying to satisfy emotional needs that cannot be met by food, or using food to numb yourself, just leaves you feeling emotionally hollow.
And every time you channel your emotional needs into food, you reinforce the message to yourself that you are weak and unable to control yourself. Not the sort of self-talk you want to be listening to.
Emotional eating is actually so deeply ingrained that it’s hardly a conscious habit anymore. We learn from childhood that food is a treat for when you are upset. It’s reinforced consistently in films (how many times have you seen a woman going through a break-up and reaching instinctively for the ice-cream?).
Using willpower to try and get the better of emotional eating doesn’t work. All it takes is a stressful day at work, a row with our partner or an issue with your kids and the willpower sails out the window.
Instead, it’s important to acknowledge that, whatever emotional hurt you are trying to soothe, food can never be the answer. We have a tendency to suppress unpleasant emotions we don’t want to face, but it’s important to recognise that your emotional eating is telling you that something needs your attention.
Here are some approaches to try:
Give yourself permission to feel
Start to notice what it is you’re thinking and feeling when you get overtaken by that urge. Pause for a minute before you stuff the first mouthful in. Take a few deep breaths. Now ask yourself: “What is it I’m really hungry for?”
Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed; or lonely; or taken for granted; or rejected. Stay with yourself and allow yourself to accept those emotions, however ugly they seem, and feel them fully. If you approach your feelings with kindness, your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to eat things that work against it to protect you from your feelings.
Prioritise fuelling yourself properly
As much as emotional eaters eat when they’re not hungry, they often don’t eat when they are actually hungry… which only fuels the urge to eat rubbish later on. Make the switch by ensuring you’re sitting down (not picking at leftovers while standing up!) to three nourishing meals of whole, delicious foods a day (including lots of healthy fats which will make you feel full and also improve your mood).
Suss out your triggers
Think carefully about when it is that you’re vulnerable to emotional eating. Maybe it’s in the evening when you’ve got through another stressful day of feeling utterly overwhelmed and you just want to reward yourself. Knowing your triggers will allow you to get one step ahead of emotional eating so you can either avoid those situations or, if you can’t avoid them, at least make sure you’re armed and prepared for the next time.
Be kind to yourself
Emotional eating can be a self-sabotaging reaction to feeling deprived, so look for ways you can bring pleasure into your life on a daily basis. What makes you feel good? Sitting with a cup of tea in the garden, listening to the birds? Go and do it. Reading a trashy novel? Make time for it. A vase of fresh flowers? Treat yourself to ones you love…and stop and enjoy them every time you pass them.
Emotional eating may seem like an impossible habit to kick but, by extending radical self-compassion to yourself, you can gradually start to simply enjoy food, rather than using it to quell feelings you’d rather not face.