Imagine feeling wonderful every time you have a meal because you never eat more than you need, and only eat when you are hungry. No guilt, no shame; not “heavy” or “sick”. Imagine that every meal is a blessing which fuels your body and feeds your mind. Imagine not obsessing over food, not being controlled by it. Ah, what a life!
It might not be easy to have that kind of life, and I am not saying that it was, for me. How can it be? We spend years with a certain habit, and do you expect to get rid of that habit in a matter of days? But starting today, life can be progressively better, because emotional eating is a habit, and habits can be changed. I will tell you how I did it, so you can, too!
But first, a cute story:
Years ago there was a 6-year-old kiddo I used to babysit from time to time. Once we were watching one of his favourite cartoons which was about eating veggies and fruits and so on. All fo a sudden, this kiddo asked me when I ate my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I honestly cannot remember how I responded, but when I asked him about his mealtimes, he said: “I only eat when I am hungry”.
What a big lesson from a 6-year-old. It might not be the most socially acceptable attitude at all times, but what a refreshing idea to eat only when I am hungry. I say this because, right around that time, a few crucial things were happening in my life: I was writing my doctoral thesis; I was suffering from anxiety; I was eating non-stop. The thing is, I was too distant from my own emotions to realize that all these (my anxiety, Ph.D. thesis, and my eating habits) were connected to each other! That period lasted more than a year. Do you know when my emotional eating ended then? Only when I submitted my thesis and got my Ph.D.! Only after that relief, I was able to go back to eating only when I was hungry.
How I saved myself the second time around
All was well until my little one was born. I had a few short-term emotional eating episodes, but as I said, they were short term, meaning, a couple of days here, a couple of days there. Consistency is what matters, darlings. I was consistently doing the mindful eating thing.
Even after the baby, the first few months were great. After the first six months, though, the fast-approaching deadline (I had a book contract) got me all stressed out. That was not the only issue. I was working on that project during the night, while the baby was asleep, and was taking care of him during the day (which is the hardest job I have ever encountered, by the way). There were the leaps, the teething, the poop, the separation anxiety. There were other people, their opinions about how to raise your own child; there was the self-doubt about work, my identity, “what am I gonna do now” kind of thing. Anyway, all this to say that after months of this roller coaster, for this woman, with that background, consistent emotional eating was kiiiiind of expected.
Following that experience with my Ph.D., I knew I would be fine once the baby goes to college or something, but, obviously, I couldn’t wait that long! Besides, I don’t want my relationship with food to be tied to stress. I decided to learn as much as I can about my problem. I read tons of books and articles about emotional eating, stress eating, binge eating. I am going to use these terms interchangeably, but many experts do not. For my purposes, what matters is eating without being able to stop one’s self. In other words, for the purposes of this blog, what you eat is not the problem. Eat that chocolate cake, ice cream, a family-size pack of popcorn- but are you able to stop when you want to stop? If you cant leave the container half-full, if you think you can’t control yourself, I’m talking about you in this blog.
After my research, what helped me the most is to pay attention to what triggers my emotional eating- the times when I ate without being able to stop. I recommend keeping an actual diary for a few weeks, but you can just use post-its, or even send an email to yourself every time you felt that particular craving. The tools you use will not matter as long as you come up with a kind of a pattern showing what brings you to binge. At first, you might not be able to see a connection, or, you might think that your emotions have got nothing to do with your binging. Keep at it. In time, you will most likely realize that there is a reason behind your eating.
Day 1: You are watching a film with two main female characters who are best friends. All of a sudden you run to the kitchen for that big bag of chips.
Day 2: You just had a lovely time at dinner with your in-laws. As if you are not stuffed already, you grab that big container of ice cream and finish it in minutes.
Day 3: It’s the holidays, and you have two days off. You celebrated with friends but they had to leave early because they have small kids. You come home and finish the doggy bag from the restaurant. Then open the freezer to find that new container of ice cream.
Try to think clearly, and without judgment. You might realize that you are upset with your best friend for having been out of touch since she had the baby. You might realize that you never get the love and TLC you need from your in-laws. Ending the night early to come back to an empty house made you feel lonely, and loneliness made you seek comfort in food. Or, a bonus example for my fellow writers: You are revising an article to resubmit to the editor who has been critical of it, and you can’t seem to finish one sentence because you keep snacking on the trail mix next to your desktop. Are you too worried about the outcome of your revision? Are you trying to postpone the work on the article because you think it will not be good enough?
Let me tell you this: When I realized that behind every binge was an emotion, and when I was actually able to name those emotions, my whole life has changed a little. I want the same for you!
First, name your emotions
At this point, I highly recommend Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin’s books. In her most recent one, the Binge Cure, Dr. Nina tells the reader to give emotions a voice. You might think that you are neither angry nor sad; neither anxious nor lonely, but you might be in one of the following states:
- in need of comfort
We can be total strangers to our own emotions. This strangeness leads to self-judgment every time we comfort ourselves with food. We need to blame something for why we cannot stop eating, so we blame ourselves, our lack of will power, self-discipline, and so on. The self-judgment isolates us from the outside world, which means that we try to comfort ourselves with food once again, which brings more binge, and the cycle continues.
Let’s say you worry-eat: Down the Rabbit Hole!
Once we realize a kind of pattern (for example, eating at night, when feeling lonely; eating when bored and meaningless, or eating when a deadline is worrying us) we can plan ahead. Let’s take worrying. You know how sometimes we worry about one little thing and create scenarios in our head about all the horrible things that little thing might cause in the future- descending down the rabbit hole, basically? To prevent such potentially miserable and ridiculous hours of worry, I recommend this brilliant exercise which I came across on a wonderful parenting-consultation website. This is how it works: You state your worry, followed by a restatement with an open-ended “if/then” statement. For instance, I worry that I will not be able to finish my book by the deadline. If I don’t finish the book by the deadline, the publisher will not publish the work. If I don’t get my book published, I will not have anything to make my child be proud of me. If my child is not proud of me, he will not want to spend time with me when he grows up. If he does not want to spend time with me, we will become estranged. If we become estranged, I will die alone and miserable.
I cut the series short, but you add as many if/then statements as you like. You want to complete these if/then sentences almost like free association, without too much thinking or editing. This exercise is eye-opening because it shows how the mind plays tricks on us with worrying. Obviously it is ridiculous to think that if I don’t get my book published I will die alone and miserable. Hopefully, I have other contributions to life, and to my child, and I hope there are other things to be proud of me *even if* I don’t get the book published. I am worried about a future that is not even likely and am definitely ruining my present by mindless worry-eating.
Other than this exercise, there are many meditation apps that might be helpful. My favourite is Simple Habit. It’s not as well known as some others, but I love it.
I cannot not mention adaptogens when talking about stress. Changing cortisol levels in response to stress might lead to cravings, and adaptogens helped me a lot with cortisol issues. First of all, check out my adaptogenic recipes here. Second, check out the new adaptogenic mixes from Yoursuper.com: Magic Mushroom (which tastes like hot chocolate, especially with warm oat milk and a little maple syrup), and Mellow Yellow (which makes a delicious golden milk alternative, again with war oat milk and maple syrup. )These are especially helpful with sleep, and they help adapt to the fluidity, the constant change in our modern lives.
Side note: I make a delicious soup with mellow yellow. Steam some root veggies (think sweet potatoes, pumpkin, a handful of carrots), maybe add cauliflower for extra creaminess, add pepper. When steamed, let the pot cool a little. Then blend these veggies well in your blender, and warm again on the stove, adding cayenne pepper to taste, Himalayan salt, and some mellow yellow (I use half a tsp for one cup of soup). SOOOO yummy, anti-stress, anti-inflammatory and delicious.
One important note, though, is that hormone health is really, really important. Because of this, you need to do your own research, especially if you are on medication, pregnant, and/or nursing. They can be life-transforming, and I want everyone to benefit from them, depending on their own needs.
Now, this is one of my favorites. Favourite, not because I enjoy stuffing myself with chocolate every time I feel bored, but only because this type of eating is extremely familiar. It may be that I have nothing else to do, or, I have tons of other things to do, but I don’t want to do them. It is because I feel lazy right now, or I self-doubt, procrastinate, can’t focus on anything else, baby-wearing o I can’t really do much else, and so on and so forth. Either way, I am Netflixing and having a pack of popcorn. And to balance that salty snack, now I am having a bowl of ice cream. And because I am one of those people who can’t stand a half-empty ice cream container, I finish the rest of it.
The thing is, we get caught off-guard, don’t we? What I find works most of the time (nothing works all the time for me, sorry) is making a list beforehand (even if it’s a mental list) of what you need/would like to do. Well, you don’t want to work on that project? No problem! Call your friend Janice whom you have been meaning to call forever. Go to a yoga class, have a walk, go to that new bookstore on the corner. Write that blog post you have been postponing (I am typing this at 2 am! No ice cream by my side!)
Do NOT watch anything. Seriously. Don’t even read on your laptop, especially if you are alone, in the middle of the night. Someone once told me that they started losing weight only when they stopped watching shows! When I heard that, what did I do? Every time I wanted Netflix, I turned to Kindle instead. Did that change anything with my emotional-eating? Nope. Please DO read, just not on your computer. Reading a printed book will practically make it harder to emotional-eat. If you manage to eat while reading a paperback, you must really be hungry!
More practical solutions
Besides calling your friends, and taking a walk, etc, I would like to recommend a brilliant new approach to not eating that icecream: Just don’t buy that icecream in the first place. Innovative, isn’t it? But seriously, if you don’t have it at home, at 11 pm, it is much less likely for you to eat it. Have I ever gone to the store in the middle of winter, close to midnight, to get something chocolatey? You betcha. Will I do that now that I am an exhausted mum? Nope. Would I eat it if it is waiting for me in the fridge? Yep. Reduce the chances of emotional eating, increase the chances of your changing your life.
Another (perhaps unusual) thing that works if I can remember using it is a keyword. Imagine the kind of person you would like to be. Summarize this ideal image in 3-4 words. Let’s say, I want to be graceful, fabulous, wise- the sky is the limit. Then, pick a couple (or all) of the summary-words and repeat these words to yourself from time to time, especially when you are aware that another craving is coming pretty soon. If you keep telling yourself that you are graceful, you will have to think twice before opening the third ice cream container.
One other tool that I use it asking myself if I am actually hungry. This is a practice of mindfulness- thinking before eating. Take a step back, breathe and ask yourself: Am I, in fact, hungry, do I actually want that particular food? Can I have something more satisfying and healthier? I can recommend another book, Mindful Diet, which might be helpful. Imagine you are sitting at a table, focusing on your food, what you are having, how much you are eating. Contrast this picture to when you binge-eat- probably while watching something on TV, perhaps you are eating out of a takeout container, without focusing on the food, since you are paying attention to what you watch. A big sigh.
In that same book, the authors Wolever and Reardon argue against “catastrophizing”. This advice has been incredibly helpful as it indeed is common to “catastrophize”, in other words, our all-or-nothing thinking makes us assume that disastrous outcomes will follow from one “negative” action. Let’s say you have a sweet tooth and you are trying to go off sugar, but end up having three cookies at lunch. After this single act, you feel like a failure, someone with no will-power and so on, and you start binging the moment you arrive home. Instead, if you stop with those three cookies, and have a wholesome dinner with lots of veggies, you will be feeling much better, both physically and emotionally, and taking another big step towards breaking the cycle of binging.
Meal prepping is a lifesaver, too! You don’t have to prep a whole cuisine, just steam some veggies, air-fry them, wash some fruits. Make healthy more convenient. The more healthy foods you have in the kitchen, the less likely you will seek comfort from cupcakes.
I don’t think any diet, even a non-diet such as intuitive eating, will be a long-term solution to emotional eating as long as we don’t deal with the emotions first. This is because our bodies will crave and accept whatever it is to comfort us. I am not talking about the sudden need for a particular mineral or, say, protein. I am talking about eating without hunger, without being able to stop yourself from finishing the entire container of chips, even though you are stuffed. There is no magic pill or a magic diet to stop emotional eating; but I think that once you come face to face with your emotions, give them a name, make them almost tangible, you will be able to break this habit. Until then, let’s keep on using the tools (such as meal prepping, etc.) to control and manage it!
Editor’s note: The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programme.