Sometimes the simplest way to define something is by stating what it is not. Food is fuel. The purpose of eating is to nourish our bodies and give them needed energy, both physically and mentally, to function each day. Using food as a way of altering, soothing, or suppressing feelings is not how your body was designed to use food. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that somewhere around, oh, ALL of us eat emotionally from time to time. Let’s face it, the majority of us do find pleasure in food, and there’s nothing wrong with this. Eating emotionally turns into the enemy when you use it as a regular coping strategy in your day-to-day life.
Why is this bad? Emotional or mind-less eating increases your risk of obesity and overweight, and with those two comes an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic stress, stroked, and respiratory problems. So, if you eat to serve a purpose other than hunger, you can be reasonably confident that you are engaging in emotional eating. Both major and minor life events can trigger unconscious eating. Bored at work? Check. Going through a divorce? Check.
In fact, sometimes it is the mundane to-do lists that lead to the candy bars, not extreme emergencies. As you probably know, when you are responding to a high-intensity call you have no time to think about eating or being hungry. That’s because your brain and body have tapped into your fight/flight mode, which takes all your attention and leaves no room for noshing on the community donuts. But after it’s all over? Pass the hot wings and beer.
- When you eat without paying attention you are much more likely to eat more than your body requires and to eat when you are not truly hungry. Both increase your risk for overweight and obesity.
- Emotional or Stress eating leads to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more.
- It’s easy to incorporate strategies for more mindful eating including distraction-free eating, trigger awareness, feeling feelings, and knowing how to H.A.L.T.
The other downside to emotional eating is that when you eat in response to stress, sadness, or anger, you don’t usually crave a salad or steamed veggies. People tend to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods when stressed—and major bummer—our bodies store more of the food we eat as fat when we are stressed, compared to when we are relaxed.
How to eat mindfully: People who eat mindfully, but not emotionally or when distracted, are less likely to overeat. Mindful eating has also been linked to better health, less stress, and improved mood. How do you do it? Here are a few simple strategies.
- Ditch distractions. Avoid multitasking while you eat. That means getting away from your laptop, turning off the television, and even waiting until a stressful meeting ends (you know, the ones that come with a box of donuts). Pay attention to what you are about to eat. Remember to use the myCircadianClock app to take a picture of anything you eat or drink. Just this simple act will help you to be conscious of what you’re eating.
- Sit down. And not in your car. Munching while you cook dinner or make the kids’ lunches for tomorrow is a great recipe for overeating. It’s easy to unconsciously graze without noting when you have had enough to eat and this can cause eating too many calories overall. Sitting down at a table away from screens (smartphones included) allows you to feel the subtle shift between being stated over being stuffed. Plus, it takes around 20 minutes for an empty stomach to register food, so eat slowly as well.
- Be Social. The Mediterranean diet includes a social lifestyle. That means enjoying at least one meal a day with other people. Having a chance to discuss your day or your plans for the day is a great way to relieve stress, and less stress means less overeating. Just be sure to save emotionally triggering conversations for after dinner.
- Know Your Triggers. Many cultures and families express love and caring with food and eating. The first step to breaking a bad habit is to know the cues that cause it in the first place. Once you can pinpoint the fact that you always overeat at the In-Laws, you can make other arrangements. Maybe suggest a walk instead of a dinner. Or volunteer to be the dishwasher or server for an evening. Keep your hands busy doing non-food activities.
- Incorporate Non-Food Pleasures. Mindful eating is not a diet. It is the intention of eating with awareness. With that in mind, make sure that you incorporate non-food activities you enjoy. As children, we all naturally know that we need to play, but we lose this instinct as adults. It is just as important. This harkens to the “be social” tip above and takes it a step further. Can you remember the last time you laughed with another person? Create a “play date” at least once a week with a friend or friends to do something unnecessary and fun. Play catch. Walk the dog. Go see a standup comedian.
- Feel Your Feelings. Don’t feed your feelings. There is a difference between feeling emotionally down or “empty” and being truly hungry. This is a subtle signal, and one that many of us have lost because we’ve been taught to eat at set times of the day, or all day, rather than listen to hungry signals that our bodies give off when they need food. The good news is that you can turn the sound back up on these alarm clocks by simply tuning in to hunger and fullness. Before you put a morsel in your mouth, pause and ask yourself how you are feeling. If the answer is anything other than calm or serene, take it a step further and check in with your hunger. When is the last time you ate? How did you sleep last night? Are you just coming off of a stressful event? Are you nearing the end of a mundane day of paperwork? Know your triggers. Awareness is usually the first step in breaking the pattern of emotional eating.
- Love Yourself. I know, hippy-dippy, but it is true that when we are feeling down about ourselves, we are much more likely to reach for unhealthy food or to eat when we are not hungry. Remember H.A.L.T. which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. In recovery groups, this is a popular acronym that you can use to spot check your level of emotional balance. If you are feeling an extreme of any of these, try to address it (or at the very least, acknowledge it)-don’t feed it.
- Don’t Get Too Hangry. After all that, last but not least is that you don’t want to let yourself starve. Just like the H.A.L.T. acronym above alludes to, getting into any extreme one of these situations can make you “hangry.” And you and your partner, and those who love you, do not want you to be Hangry.