Eating is one of the necessities we need to meet to stay alive. Unfortunately in the Western world where food is generally available in abundance, we sometimes use food to substitute for something else. Sadness. Loneliness. Boredom. But also when we celebrate, food tends to take on a prominent role on which we indulge more than we should – and often for all the wrong reasons. In short: Emotional eating. This is an article which describes a solution to this problem: How to stop emotional eating with mindfulness. And as I have a tendency to emotionally eat myself, all of this is covered from a personal – maybe recognizable – perspective.
How to stop emotional eating with mindfulness: An intro
Hello everyone, I am Nathalie, and I am an emotional eater.
I am very aware of the ironic pun here. But it’s a confession nonetheless. Although I consider myself generally a balanced and happy person, I remember numerous occasions where my relationship with food was off the scale.
Eating an entire cheesecake by myself after my aunt died? Been there. Preparing a monstrous stack of sandwiches and eating them all at once because my eyes were bigger than my stomach? Done that. Eating myself close to bursting during a family dinner because we’re all having such a good time? Check. And one of my latest achievements: Being unwilling to recognize the chicken is undercooked simply because it tasted so good? Yep…
I can eat out of joy, out of sadness, out of spite, and even out of boredom. I often eat while being driven by emotion, rather than by hunger. I am an emotional eater.
Luckily this has never really been a daily occasion, which causes me to keep my weight relatively balanced – yet it slowly increasing over the years. For me, emotional eating feels like an especially unhealthy practice on a mental ground, one which I would like to unlearn over time. This is why I decided to research fitting options which could provide a solution to the problem.
This is my story about emotional eating, and how to stop emotional eating with mindfulness.
A (funny) bit of history
I always liked food, but I never quite understood I had a special relationship with it until I was in my teens. Me and the Mister were just going steady, and we went to one of those yellow-lettered fast food chains to indulge ourselves. As most men do, he finished his meal a little earlier than I did, and started picking off my fries one by one.
I remember how it horrified me. Why was he making a grab for my chips? They were mine, and he already had his fill. Why would he do this to me!?
Although we were young and our relationship was even younger, I felt I needed to set some boundaries. I actually covered my tray with my arms and with my head ducked down in my food I murmured something along the lines of “they’re mine I saved them I need those they’re my fries you had your fries please leave them alone” – And I actually wouldn’t be surprised if I managed to stuff a few in my mouth during the process.
I knew I felt ridiculous the moment I said this. I actually blushed that unappealing beet-red only pale teens can manage.
The Mister laughed it off and made it humorously clear to me that if we were to be together, I could at least share something trivial with him like my fries.
Although carelessly sharing food was a completely new concept to me I realized the guy made sense. And from then on, I never had a problem sharing food with him again.
Unfortunately, it took me close to twenty years to finally become serious about addressing my relationship with food.
My relationship with food
I come from a middle-class family where food was never a shortage. My mother cooked lovely family meals, and although my older siblings would often try to make a stab at the piece of beef at the edge of my plate, I don’t see how this made me so sensitive about food. Because truth be told my entire family seems to consider food a not-so-secret lover, rather than a necessity to stay alive.
Take the Mister, au contraire. If we run out of groceries, he can easily make himself a bowl of oatmeal for dinner and call it a day. I on the other hand, would go out of my way to make sure there’s something nice to eat – whether it be a good sandwich, some chili I whipped up with cans from the pantry, or some tasty takeout. Not finding a solution to this problem (which of course rarely occurs due to meticulous planning) would leave me very disgruntled.
As you might guess, food plays an important part in my daily life. But what does food really mean to me? I tried writing it down:
I see food as a treat, rather than a necessity. It can be simple, but it has to be tasty. I like good, fresh products, and I like savory junk food as well. I like home cooked meals and I like Michelin star dinners. I like raw food, straight from my garden. I like exotic tastes. I like the different textures food can provide. I like how food can be the excuse for a good social meeting. I like how food can make me feel.
I also like the peace eating brings me. Eating is a moment where I have to sit still. I like eating in front of the tv with a good show, as it brings me utter relaxation. I like eating with people, because it gives me a feeling of coziness and intimacy. I like eating alone, because I can portion out and prepare my food without having to add another person to the equation.
I reward myself with food. I seek comfort in food. I feel deserving of food when I had either a really good or a really bad day. I have trouble not finishing my plate, as I feel it’s a waste to throw food away. I make portions that are too big for my appetite, which leave me uncomfortable and even sick.
I guess I can honestly say I find food to be a cruel mistress.
The relationship with food I would like to have
Instead of this complicated relationship with food, I would like eating to become more of a necessity than a treat: Something to be appreciated every day and thoroughly yet consciously enjoyed on occasion.
More importantly, I would like to learn how to only eat food when I’m hungry, and not when feelings are involved – either happy or unhappy.
Even when I’m typing this up I’m starting to feel restless. Does this mean I can’t whip up a cheese platter when the Mister and I are having a date night? Do I have to switch my lovely lunch salads for bland oatmeal? Does this mean I’ll have to deny myself every treat just to make sure I won’t give in to emotional eating anymore?
I’ve always had a relaxed demeanor towards my diet and my weight, so the answer is no. My longing to change my eating habits are mostly fed by the knowledge that my relationship with food leans far too much on my mood, and not so much on ulterior motives like losing weight or becoming healthier – although that’s an advantage I am more than willing to embrace.
I would simply like to find the same balance with food which I also enjoy in other aspects of my life.
The solution I have researched
After spending several weeks of studying my emotional eating patterns and thinking about possible solutions, I realized there simply isn’t a cookie cutter answer to how I’d like to approach this. I am a firm believer of gradually making long-lasting habits and always keeping a balance in mind, which will leave you feeling accomplished rather than limited.
At some point I simply exclaimed “I will probably have to start thinking twice about everything I want to sink my teeth in.” In short, being more mindful about what I put in my mouth.
And this is where things started to click.
How to stop emotional eating with mindfulness
You might have been able to guess what I typed into my Google search bar. Three keywords were enough:
“Mindfulness emotional eating.”
As I expected, I wasn’t the first person who came up with this idea.
As I’ve stated in my article “Mindfulness tips for beginners”, I only practice mindfulness sporadically. But judging by the articles I’ve come across during my research, mindfulness is the perfect approach to tackle emotional eating by recognizing the underlying problem, rather than solving the obvious by simply focusing on restrictions by dieting.
These are some methods I have come across during my research:
Having mindful meals
Most articles on websites dedicated to mindfulness seem to focus on making every meal a mindful practice. This is generally done by:
- Making eating your sole activity: No multitasking
- Eating away from your desk or the television
- Eating slowly and deliberately
- Taking small bites
Admittedly, this method rubs me in a way many mindfulness practices do. I don’t see myself sitting at the table during every meal, savoring every bite, trying every texture and whiffing every smell to be fully aware in the present. Because sometimes, I eat my sandwich at the kitchen counter. Sometimes I’ll want to snack in front of the tv. I consider mindfulness as a helpful tool rather than a way of life, and this borders too much on a lifestyle for me; although I can imagine these tips will book you success even when applied sporadically.
Asking yourself mindful questions
A more practical mindful approach which I have ran into multiple times during my research is determining why you feel you need to eat, and then deciding in favor or against it. For example, you can ask yourself if you want to eat because:
- You are hungry and your body needs nutrition (physical hunger)
- You aren’t hungry but you feel your body needs nutrition (mental hunger)
- You aren’t hungry but you want to sate your emotions by eating (emotional hunger)
- You aren’t hungry but you want to join your company in eating (social hunger)
I feel this method could help me well on my way, but admittedly, I am missing some depth.
Mindfully replacing emotional eating with new healthier habits
Luckily, after quick scan I found an article by one of my favorite self-improvement authors, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. His method goes a little deeper and is more pragmatic.
In his article named “Dealing with emotional eating issues” Leo explains he’s been coping with emotional eating for several years, and that his eating habits had left him feeling unhappy and overweight.
In short, he found a solution which pretty much comes down to recognizing your emotional triggers, and replacing your emotional eating with a healthier response. He advises his readers to:
- Study their emotional eating patterns and determine what triggers their emotional eating
- Pick one of their emotional triggers (like stress, boredom, loneliness, reward, comfort)
- Find a healthy way to cope with this emotion instead of eating (like having a glass of water, a cup of tea, exercise, reading, socializing)
- Paying close attention to triggers which evoke this emotion and replacing said emotion with your new, healthy coping mechanism
This way, you can tackle your emotional eating one emotion at a time. Leo describes this extensively in his excellent article, which also gives you tips and ideas about healthy substitutes for particular emotions.
I feel this method could work very well for me, as it acknowledges the underlying emotion and provides a replacement action to keep me distracted from craving food.
How to stop emotional eating with mindfulness: How it’s going so far
I have actually considered keeping a diary about my progress on beating emotional eating with mindfulness, similar like I do during my challenge reports. I often run into situations that could be written into funny (and slightly painful) anecdotes, which might be recognizable and maybe even helpful to my readers.
The thing with a report from a 7-day or even 30-day challenge though, is that it has a clear start and a clear ending. This journey might very well not.
I’ve been spending several weeks trying to stop emotional eating with mindfulness (and even longer writing this article) and I sense my progress has clear ups and downs. I notice that when I booked success, I fall back into old habits by treating myself with – yep, you guess it – food. Fortunately I also notice that I am automatically getting more conscious about making the choice to indulge myself, rather than doing so unknowingly. It is tiresome to go into a discussion with your inner voice multiple times a day, but at least I feel I am very, very slowly picking the fruit from my labor.
At least I can say my tea kettle has never been used more, as I adopted having a cup of green tea as a healthy coping mechanism, instead of diving into the fridge!
Do you emotionally eat? Have you found anything that has helped you beating it so far? I would love to hear your stories!