Today I’m diving into the juicy topic of emotional eating! Before we get started it’s really important to remind ourselves that not all emotional eating is bad. Yes some mythical unicorns only see ‘food as fuel’ and don’t have the messy relationship with food that we do and good for them, however, most people do have some kind of emotional link with food as it’s such a big part of our culture.
I’m not saying it’s always a good part of our culture, but when you think of celebrations, feasting and family, food and its emotional links, it can actually be quite a beautiful thing. Before we start addressing the unhelpful kind of emotional eating I feel it’s super important to consider that not all of it is bad and most certainly not something to feel guilty about. It’s ok to have an emotional attachment to food – only you will know what feels like a helpful attachment and what is positive or negative behaviour around it.
In my experiences, unhelpful emotional eating is very similar to unhelpful behaviours we have around spending money / shopping / watching TV and other activities that enable us to zone out. We all experience negative emotional states that don’t feel good, but some of us will try and numb out of feeling them by eating. Sometimes it’s not only negative emotional states, it’s extremes on either end of the scale that incites an emotional eating response, as I once found out after an M&S food binge when I found out I was pregnant with Finley! I was so ecstatic I couldn’t contain the feeling to actually fully feel it.
When you’re in that process of eating, you’re not feeling the boredom, anger, stress or anxiety that you’re just covering up. Unfortunately, as is often the case, as soon as you stop eating that uncomfortable feeling you were trying to not feel comes back and is unfairly accompanied by guilt and self disgust which then leads to more eating to numb out and thus the cycle continues with a dose of bingeing thrown in.
Add to that numbing out, the associations we have of food as comfort and connection makes it even more of a crutch. When you also throw in food rules like seeing foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ then we can find ourselves in a big old mess. Just remember that if you experience this kind of behaviour you aren’t a bad person and you don’t lack self control. For me personally and in many of the women I’ve coached (all intelligent, capable women I might add), it’s something that sneaks up on us over many years.
The good news is, you can address the unhelpful emotional eating over time with a few shifts:
Feel your feelings
Ok I’ll say this from the start, this one isn’t easy. We need to start fully feeling our feelings to start to reverse the need to numb out. This can be very scary for some of us and it goes without saying that if you’re experiencing depression or any set of emotions that doesn’t feel right in a big way you need to get support from a doctor or therapist before doing anything like this.
If it’s more day to day stress, anxiety and boredom then these are a good place to start. For me, I started firstly by noticing when I was pottering into the kitchen and snacking when I knew I wasn’t hungry. At first that was all I did, just notice that what I was doing was in fact emotional eating. Then in time I would stop myself mid-snacking and try to identify what it was I was feeling. Eventually I was able to do this before I ate anything, at the point I had the thought of going into the kitchen. When I was able to sit with the feeling for a while – sometimes journaling it out, sometimes talking to James about it or finding something to do (more often than not it’s been boredom for me) really helped. On occasion I’d do that and make the very conscious decision to eat something, fully aware that it was emotional eating. The huge difference this makes is when you do it conciously you can, to some degree, reduce the guilt you feel and thus not make it into a vicious cycle!
I’d also add to this one that if you find yourself constantly feeling stress, anxiety or boredom then alongside giving yourself permission to feel that you may also want to look at addressing why you’re feeling that way, which brings me on to…
Find your joy
So many of us are joy-deficient these days. When was the last time you felt pure joy and bliss? If you haven’t felt that today (yes, today!) then you need to work on finding your joy. It is absolutely possible to feel joy every single day. When we are feeling pleasure and joy from sources that aren’t food we’re not only reducing the emotional states that make use want to numb out, we’re also feeding our sense of self and we don’t feel as deprived in life (nothing like a diet for making you feel deprived!)
To start figuring out how to feel more joy in your life I absolutely suggest you start with self care. To me, self care is how you get to daily joy so check out this post, and this post for more on inviting self care into your life.
Ditch the labels on food
I bang this drum all the time, but for good reason! Ditching the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels on food takes away much of its negative power. For example, if you do emotionally eat a slice of chocolate cake, adding to that believing that chocolate cake is a ‘bad’ food and by eating it you are also ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ spirals things down to a whole new level. I know this is often said by those unicorns who only see food as fuel, but food is just food. Eating a kale salad doesn’t transform you into a better, more virtuous person just as eating an ice cream doesn’t make you a shitty person.
Sometimes emotional eating isn’t just about numbing out from those uncomfortable feelings, it can be used as self punishment and linked to lack of self esteem and self worth. If that sounds familiar to you, and you’re up for addressing this stuff then I’d love to invite you to check out my coached programme the Mindset Makeover. We’re made to think that what we eat is the cause of all our weight and wellbeing problems, but it’s actually what we think about the food we eat that’s the issue! Join me this June to master your mindset once and for all.
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