By Alison Kouba, Master of Nutrition Student in both the Didactic Program in Dietetics & Clinical Health Psychology programs at Bastyr University
We’ve all been there – an exhausting day at work, a difficult exam at school, or relationship drama. Whatever the stressor, we end up elbow deep in a pint of ice cream and suddenly we are feeling better, until …
As soon as the spoon hits the bottom of the container, our problem returns and now we’re feeling guilty about our 30-minute, intimate bonding experience with Ben and Jerry! But is emotional eating ALL bad? I say no, and here’s why!
First, emotional eating is a fact of life. It’s wonderful that eating nourishes our body and allows us to do the things we do every day, but it’s an added gift that it’s such a pleasurable experience. Therefore, emotional eating is similar to taking a bath, reading a book, or doing any other self-care ritual that just ‘feels good’ when we’re upset. It’s no wonder that everyone has this shared experience in his or her life!
However, emotional eating can be ok when approached in the right way: mindfully. Mindful eating is eating with the intention to care for yourself and the attention to actually notice the enjoyment of food and its effect on your body. Mindful eating takes us out of that autopilot mentality, the state where we are putting food into our mouth without truly experiencing it. If you’ve ever gotten into your car and driven somewhere only to realize you’ve arrived and you don’t remember a single detail of the journey, then you understand the power of autopilot! But if we step into our experience with food mindfully, with intention and attention, we have the choice to act, as opposed to simply following our autopilot’s commands. And with that choice comes better control over our emotional eating; turning it into an act that can provide nourishment and comfort without the excess and guilt.
Second, emotional eating can be a red flare, signaling to us that we have an unmet emotional need. As soon as we have finished with an episode of mindless, emotional eating, all of the problems that we were trying to wash away come flooding back. They still need to be considered, addressed, and processed. But if we look at our emotional eating, not as a task to be judged and regretted, but as a learning tool for what is causing us to want to escape, emotional eating can transform from shame to a blessing in disguise. When we view emotional eating in this way, appreciating it for the awareness it can provide, we can gain knowledge about our relationship with food and have an opportunity to grow.
But knowing what to do next can be just as much a mystery. Here are my tips for slowing down and checking in with ourselves before we reach for that morsel of satisfaction:
1. Take a moment to breathe. When feeling a craving come on, getting grounded can shift us out of that autopilot thinking and behaving, and bring us back to the present moment, to cue into what our body and mind are experiencing right now. Grounding oneself, first, can help limit any mindless shoveling of food into our mouths.
2. Do a hunger check. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10. Set a goal to eat until you are satisfied, and take mindful bites. Bring all of your senses to your food and truly experience your food from beginning to end. This can help increase your satisfaction and limit the numbing sensation that can accompany emotional eating. Allowing yourself to experience and enjoy the entirety of the meal can help decrease the need to continue eating past the point of satiety.
3. Check in with how you’re feeling. Is there anything that you feel you are lacking? Love? Comfort? Safety? Be kind to yourself and give yourself what you need. Once we tap into our internal experience and give our hearts what they crave, the emotional eating serves little purpose
Approaching an episode of emotional eating in this way can help limit any nutritional consequences of overeating and actually serve as a healthy coping strategy. Additionally, just being aware that we are wanting to eat as a means to cope, can actually uncover an unmet need. And with that, we now have the option to choose: we can bury the emotion for the time being or we can attend to it, satisfy it, and decrease the need to cover it in chocolate! So next time you’re stressed or overwhelmed, consider these 3 questions and you may decide that you don’t need that ice cream after all. But if you do, realize that it’s ok, and that now you have a way to do it in a healthy way!