February is American Heart Month! Type the words “heart health” in Google and you get over 325 million tips and resources, all related to preventing or improving physical heart health. The thing is, most people already know what these are: eat more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, omega-3 fats…and exercise!
Unfortunately, my experience has been that so many people are really struggling with feeding their “hungry heart” rather than their stomach. Some of this is related to living in a society overly focused on competition and comparison, rather than self-care and compassion. Individuals of all ages and activity levels feel stigmatized for not meeting a certain standard, and often turn to food to comfort this pain.
And, what’s the solution to this problem? More diets. Diets are all about rules that initially provide a sense of control for the dieter, but also carry this message that having a weight problem means you lack what it takes to “follow the rules” and the cycle of shame, stress, defeat…and emotional eating continues.
Emotional eating is when an emotion triggers a person to eat, instead of the physical symptom of hunger. There are many misconceptions about emotional eating. One of the biggest myths is that all emotional eating leads to overeating and weight gain. In fact, it is natural to eat for emotional reasons and still maintain your weight. For example, celebrations with family and friends often include special foods that we have an emotional relationship with. Having birthday cake with friends, not because you are hungry, but because it feels good isn’t necessarily a prescription for overeating or weight gain.
So then, what’s the problem with emotional eating? Emotional eating is a problem when it is out of control or contributes to more emotions, such as feelings of guilt or shame. When a person is out of touch with their feelings, and eats to comfort themselves or “stuff their feelings down”, it can result in overeating. When an individual engages in this behavior day after day, it is likely to result in weight gain. In a study published in the journal, Appetite, researchers from the University of Canterbury investigated how an individual’s perceptions about eating a food, like chocolate cake, influenced their motivation to maintain a healthy eating plan. They discovered that those who felt “guilty” after eating a piece of cake were more likely to sabotage their weight loss efforts than those who associated the cake with “celebration.”
Diets and having forbidden foods often make the problem worse. Dieters, or individuals with restricted eating patterns, are typically eating less than they need; less of the foods they enjoy; and, are chronically hungry. When faced with stress or other emotions, the ability to maintain control of the restrained eating becomes intolerable for the individual who “gives in” and overeats. In these situations, the individual often eats quickly; is distracted; and, is disconnected from his or her internal cues. Feeling guilty and remorseful, the dieter tries harder to restrict the eating and the cycle continues.
So, what can you do to manage emotional eating?
Identify your triggers. Keep a mood food diary and track information about your meals and snacks (including unplanned eating). Write down what you are eating, when you are eating, where you are eating, whom you are eating with, and how you are feeling at the time. Many of my clients strongly object to keeping a journal for various reasons. Taking time with a nutritionist or other health professional to discuss strategies to overcome those barriers may be key for you to take the first step in getting control of your emotional eating.
Don’t skip meals. Feed yourself regularly while being mindful of balance, variety and moderation in your meal planning.
Eat whole foods. Eating whole foods that you enjoy, on a regular basis, can help to balance out your mood and provide consistent energy during the day.
Develop alternative coping skills to manage your emotions. Take a moment to create a list of activities you can use when emotions run high. Things like calling a friend, gardening, going outdoors, reading, doing a puzzle are all examples. Many activities, such as these, result in the release of the chemicals in the brain that help us feel better. I suggest that individuals have their list visible and easily available. When you notice a trigger to use food for comfort, try one of the items from your list. After 10 minutes, if the food is still beckoning you, try the 2nd activity for 10 minutes, and so on. Usually if you make it to the 3rd activity, you will notice that the urge to eat is less.
Try Individual or group counseling. Talking about your triggers, and getting support for planning healthy meals and snacks, may be the key to making the behavior changes that are needed.