I really enjoy eating. I think many of us do. My opinion is food can and should make us feel good. It is instinctive and part of our survival mechanism. We eat to live, but pleasure does, and always has played a large role in our nourishment. We are wired for it. The pleasure centers in the brain are stimulated when we eat and emotional satisfaction is what ensues.
Not every meal is a monumental creative accomplishment, but those that are offer a unique satisfaction that transcends the physical food. Family events and cultural traditions magnify or deepen the satiation and we often find sentimental attachments to food, be they for better or worse. At times, we are also drawn to eat because of our emotions and this is where we can often get ourselves into nutritional `hot water`.
On a day to day basis, many might not automatically identify eating patterns with emotional eating. You might use food in a crutch-like, but not overtly emotional way those cups of coffee each day for a continuing energy boost or that regular glass of something alcoholic to help us unwind from the day. In these and many other cases, these are the foods you may use without problematic consequences. Likewise, now and then you just might crave something and allow yourself the option. There is no food police ready to sound the alarm if you eat off your plan. I am definitely not on a mission to normalize obsessive behaviour around food and I am clearly aware that not every dietary indiscretion or indulgence suggests some deeper psychological issue. Sometimes a cookie really is just a cookie.
On the other hand, many have turned to food at some point to suppress or distract emotions. You might find yourself eating night out of abject boredom or deep loneliness. Perhaps it is stress or anxiety, and food feels like an emotional salve in the moment. You are ill and want some comfort foods, or you are in physical or emotional pain and just want something to take your mind off the discomfort for a while. Difficult times or transitions may leave you feeling empty, and food becomes the filler or coping mechanism for a few days or maybe a few weeks (or several years). In these ways, emotional eating stands on its own in a stark way and substitutes for something bigger than what could be contained on the plate.
The fact is, food has tremendous power to heal, to enhance your enjoyment of life, to change you both mentally and physically. It is when you begin to use food for these emotional triggers that you can, over time, begin wading into self-destructive or at least self-defeating behavior. When it becomes a regular pattern not only does our health suffer, but emotionally you are left unresolved by putting off addressing what truly is behind the impulse. As a general principle food is used to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain when true pleasure is in short supply.
This leads to the question of what to do when the emotional impetus creeps in:
Accept the biology of the situation.
Yes, food activates your feel-good trigger. You are hormonally wired to seek out typical comfort foods based on the interaction of stress with ghrelin levels. Your mind is not deceiving you about the stress relief. Research shows it can, in fact, inhibit the brain’s anxiety response. That said, there are a few ways to reach the same objective.
Just stop. Stop yourself from walking to the fridge. Stop your thoughts. Go clip your fingernails. Brush the dog. Vacuum or shovel. Throw in a load of laundry.
Check in with yourself – recent past, immediate present, near future. Be crystal clear. Have you had a really (blank) day? How has this week been for you? Are you worried about that (blank) project coming up at work or how the (blank) you are going to pay for an upcoming trip or home repair? You could try having a checklist. Journaling serves its purpose, but the simplicity of a checklist (kept on the fridge perhaps) often stares back at you with immediate clarity. Write the day and check off what triggered the (blank) cravings.
Get your needs met.
Especially if this is a frequent occurrence, what is food standing in for? What’s going on emotionally that needs tending? For some, it might be as simple as taking some time off work, spending personal time in a more quality-oriented way (as in fun), adjusting your schedule, commitments, or budget. For others, however, emotional eating is a little more than just situational. It can be a deeply rooted association that has perhaps built up over years or even decades. Finding an experienced therapist and/or relevant support group can be a relief. Try not to force yourself to keep stuffing down the impulse. Unpack it. Bring it into the light of day to live unburdened by it.
Choose an alternate source of pleasure for these moments.
Again, post it on the fridge. Put a copy in your desk, your car, your purse, your briefcase, and wherever else you need it. When you find that gnawing hunger creeping up, look at the list of other things you can do to make yourself feel good in the moment. Have at least ten things you can do. Add to it whenever you feel inspired.
Finally, let me say one last thing about an emotion I strongly believe should have no place in eating. Guilt. I would venture to guess that more misery has been experienced and more pounds added from guilt than most feelings combined. It is a cruel but telling irony. You eat what you believe you should not and perhaps even really do not really want to. Then you wallow in guilt, which leads to shame, which circles back to isolation and insecurity, and right back to the impulse to fill the emotional hole again. While trying to the past is a useless task, you can work to cut off the cycle you find yourself in. Cut off the guilt.
I am not saying this to justify the undesirable choice. You are not justifying it or condemning it. In fact, say nothing about it. Conversing with our impulses rarely helps. Avoid the mental chatter altogether. (It does nothing but takes you down a rabbit hole.) Come back solely to the sensory and physical. Do something (other than eating) to get back in your body, the very one you are most probably looking at with more frustration or disappointment or disgust or self-loathing than you had before you ate the thing-you-emotionally-ate. Go against every instinct you may have and do something good for you, something healthy or indulgent or aesthetically pleasing. Realign your thinking in that specific moment. The cookie is gone unless you are still carrying it around in your head. Let it go. The rest of the day is waiting.