It starts innocently enough.
You open a box of Girl Scout cookies, planning to eat just a couple. An hour later, you realize you’ve finished off half the box.
Or perhaps at a party, you reach into a bowl of peanuts or M&M’s and quickly lose track of how many times you grab another handful.
Maybe you don’t consider these eating patterns to be related to your emotions. But think about how often you put food into your mouth when you aren’t physically hungry or needing a meal.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating isn’t a diagnosis. It’s the simple act of reaching for food when you aren’t physically hungry or needing nutrition.
Sneaking candy from the jar on your coworker’s desk, appreciating the homemade cookies in the break room, or eating ice cream every night at bedtime all fit this description. The food somehow meets a need or fills a gap in your life.
Emotional eating can be obvious, such as the times you hunt for a snack when you feel stressed or bored. But sometimes the connection is more hidden and harder to recognize.
Peggy says, “When the kids go down for their naps, I start searching the cupboards. I”m not hungry, I just want something…”
John confessed, “I can’t break my habit of stopping for a Big Mac and fries on the way home from work. Since I don’t want my family to know, I always eat a full dinner with them as well.”
There went the diet!
As I said last week, if you occasionally grab a candy bar on a stressful day, you probably won’t do much damage. But if you aren’t careful, you can slide into using food to “fix” all of your emotional needs. Eventually, emotional eating will destroy your diet plan as well as ruin your motivation and your self-esteem.
There’s no question that food does make us feel better, at least temporarily. But real life is still there when we stop eating. At some point, the pleasure ends and negative feelings creep in. Guilt and remorse don’t stop us; they just lead to more eating.
Sandy has tried many diet plans over the years. But her success never lasts because she always slips back into a predictable cycle of eating, feeling bad, then eating again. Here’s how she describes her pattern:
“First I eat to calm down and relax at the end of a hard day. As the evening drags on, I eat because I’m alone and bored. Later, I eat because I’m frustrated and disgusted with myself. Once again, I’ve completely blown my diet and I feel awful. So then I eat to punish myself for being bad and for screwing up my goals.”
Hunger or desire to eat?
To stop emotional eating, you first have to recognize that you’re doing it. Start noticing all the times you eat when you truly aren’t hungry.
Analyze your habits such hitting the vending machine mid-afternoon, eating a bowl of ice cream at bedtime or grabbing a few cookies every time you get off the phone with your mother.
Any time you start thinking about food, decide whether you’re experiencing a physical need or an emotional one. Before you put anything in your mouth, ask yourself:
IS THIS HUNGER OR A DESIRE TO EAT?
If you decide you’re truly hungry, give your body some fuel. But if you’re having a desire to eat, catch yourself on the spot and ask, “What’s going on here? What’s making me want to eat right now?” Then consider how you could take care of your real needs instead of appeasing them with food.
The key to managing emotional eating is not staying away from food. (Although doing that may help stop the problem for the moment.)
What’s more important is that you learn to identify what you feel, need or want, then invent new ways of managing these emotional issues instead of eating your way through them.
Today: Think of one place or situation where you tend to do emotional eating. Decide that each time it comes up, you will ask yourself, “Is this hunger or a desire to eat?”
Feel free to leave your comments about this.
Next week’s topic: Using Food as Comfort