Everyone has a relationship with food. It tends to stem from childhood, and can become deeply ingrained in our food “story,” not only influencing what we eat as adults, but how we eat. It can evolve by the time we reach adulthood based on life circumstances and situations. For some, this relationship can be more emotional, more stressful, more toxic. Just as a drug, food can be used – to numb, distract, quell negative feelings. There is a reason why it “works,” both physiologically and mentally, but it is rarely long-lasting. At the end of the day, when it comes to soothing uncomfrobtable feelings, food can’t do that for you. On the other side of a binge or emotional eating experience, is typically another negative emotion, such as frustration, guilt, shame.
In a Healthified Podcast episode with food therapist Sarah Thacker, we discuss emotional eating, what it is, and how you can free yourself from it. Here are five takeaways from our conversation:
Get more comfortable with your uncomfortable emotions. Anger, frustration, sadness, grief, loneliness, boredom…these are all examples of emotions that not only feel uncomfortable mentally, but in our bodies as well. Therefore, the reason we turn to a substance or behavior in response is to give us something to do or focus on in the face of them so we can feel differently. Turning to food and eating is one way people numb and distract. And the foods one turns to – refined carbohydrates or sugary processed foods for example – have the effect of lighting up reward signals in our brains to make us feel relief. So in order to find freedom from this behavior, Thacker recommends doing the work to face your feelings head on, get more comfortable with them, and allow yourself to feel them. The non-resistance alone is a healthy step to increased emotional intelligence. How do you do this? Simple awareness: “[Pay attention from moment to moment…[know] your emotions are information and make a choice and how do you want to respond to the emotion.” Using your emotions as information will provide insight in how you should respond in a way that doesn’t involve food. For example, feeling angry? Perhaps you need to have a conversation with the person who angered you, or maybe a long walk would help calm your nervous system.
Question your thoughts and beliefs. Our thoughts and beliefs dictate our behavior, so if you create space from them, and awareness of them, you can separate yourself from those old ways of thinking that are encouraging the behavior you are wanting to change (like emotional eating or binge eating). The next step would be to figure out what new things do you want to start believing about yourself that align with your vision of how you want to respond to uncomfortable emotions, or what new habits you want to adopt instead. Then using mantras or journaling, begin to embrace and embody those new thoughts and beliefs.
Journal. Thacker recommends journaling when doing any emotional work: “[Journaling] helps to get it out of your head so you can separate yourself from it.” It allows you to ask: “How is this thought or emotion impacting my body on a physiological level?” As humans, we hold emotions in our bodies. Whether they are felt in the gut, chest, back, or head, being aware of this mind-body connection allows you to pinpoint and soften. Putting pen to paper is a powerful tool to bring awareness to how you individually hold emotions.
Add in a mindful minute at least once a day. If you aren’t ready for a formal meditation practice, start with one minute of sitting, being, and watching your breath, then build slowly from there. The intention is to just be. Whether you’re watching the breath, focusing on a mantra, or listening to music, it simply pertains to the practice of getting out of the thinking mind and into the present moment.
What does this have to do with eating? One of the greatest sources of stress we have is the way that we speak to ourselves; our inner dialogue. In our day-to-day lives, we tend to live in more of a sympathetic nervous system state, where we perceive things to be an emergency. Meditation, or practicing that mindful minute, gives you the space to just be.
Practice mindful eating. Be present with your food. This will help you improve your relationship to it. It will shift it from being a source of stress, to something that is meant to nurture and nourish. More mindful eating can also help you with your food choices. Sitting down with a bag of potato chips versus a plate of colorful vegetables will feel different. Ask “how is this food benefitting me?” “What nutrients is it providing?” We are less likely to be able to answer those questions with processed food. Eating without distractions, breathing during your meal, chewing, and expressing gratitude are all ways to eat more mindfully as well.