When people struggle with weight – overweight or underweight – the underlying cause may be emotional. Because of that, anyone with weight issues should try to identify their emotional relationship to food and the cause, if at all possible. Quiet introspection with serious intent can usually uncover the reasons for using food as a drug to silence emotions.
We will look at two of the most common emotional causes, beginning with high stress.
You have probably heard both of the statements: “I am a stress eater,” and “I can’t eat, I am too stressed out.” These accurately describe the two primary effects that stress has on people. It either causes them to under eat, or over eat. The majority of people overeat and the foods they choose are typically salty, sugary sweet, and/or full of saturated fats.
Some people know when they are stressed and are completely aware that they are stress eating. For others, the overeating is almost unconscious.
Stress can be caused by job, family, relationships, or a multitude of other things. Living on overload all the time (too many things to do, too many deadlines, too many obligations and responsibilities, never enough time) causes a high level of the hormone Cortisol to be released into the body. This leads to cravings of high calorie foods that are conveniently available day and night at the local fast-food drive-thru.
Becoming fully aware of eating habits when stressed is the first step to dealing with this emotional issue. Then, planning ahead for those times and choosing to eat healthier foods rather than overloading on empty-calorie foods that not only cause weight gain, but are dangerous to general health. .
The second emotional factor that may be driving overeating is a life-long habit of using food for comfort. A significant part of our enculturation is connected to food.
Most people have eating habits rooted in childhood that still control the way they eat, which is where the concept of “comfort foods” originated. It may be macaroni and cheese, beef stew, or warm cookies and milk. Those kinds of foods from childhood remind us of a time when we felt safe and loved. They bring comfort and a feeling of love.
When you are sad, lonely, discouraged, or feeling any strong emotion, you may turn to food for comfort. If this is a deeply ingrained habit, it is important to redefine ways to find comfort and love to something healthier such as a nice hot cup of tea and honey, a hot bath, a massage, or taking a long quiet walk.
Also, think about all of your activities – do most of your social interactions involve food? If so, make a change and start offering new ideas to spend time with friends that do not involve food – or at least, make food a secondary component, rather than the primary one. For example – start hiking, dancing, rock climbing, road tripping, etc. .
Once you identify the issues/situations that are causing you to over eat, and/or to eat unhealthy foods most of the time, you will be able to make a conscious decision to stop the mindless eating that has been your norm.
Making significant changes in your eating patterns is much more difficult than breaking any other type of habit (or addiction) – and unhealthy foods can be an addiction. You have to eat to live – so you cannot simply stop eating. As a result, you have to find a way to eat well to live well, rather than eat to fill an emotional void.
There are a few things you can do that will help overcome your emotional need to binge on the wrong foods.
• Clean out Your Pantry and Frig – get rid of all the unhealthy “go-to” snacks that you grab when you must have something to eat. Fill it with healthy foods without all the sugar, fats, and additives. .
• Find Substitutes – Replace the chips and Coke with sliced crispy apples sprinkled with sea salt. This will give you the crunchy satisfaction plus the salt you crave; but, in a much healthier form. Plus, it is highly unlikely that you will eat too many apples – unlike the challenge of stopping after a few chips. Another choice is a handful of raw almonds that are not only filling and crunchy; they also help quell the sweet craving.
• Build a Support System – Find someone you can talk to when you are dealing with an unwavering drive to go on a binge. It can be a friend, a counselor, or a mentor – anyone that will listen and distract you until the urge to eat subsides. This must be someone who actually supports your desire to change and will not offer to take you to McDonald’s to talk. The best kind of person is someone who understands what you are going through – possibly has been through it her/himself.
• Keep a Success Journal – Track your successes. Every time you resist the temptation to stop at Dunkin Donuts or Wendy’s and either choose not to eat, or pick something healthier – write it down. Also write down all the healthy choices you made for breakfast, lunch, dinner – and snacks. At the end of the day – review your successes – even if it is only one small success – that is a step in the right direction. Focus on what you want to happen, rather than on what you do not want.
• Move Your Body – Thirty minutes of daily exercise – even walking – helps with stress relief, controlling weight, reducing cravings; plus lessening risk for lung and heart disease. Along with the exercise, be sure to stay hydrated. Use water and exercise as a way to diffuse the cravings. When you feel the urge to eat – take a nice slow drink of cool water. If the craving persists, take a brisk walk, or blast your favorite music and dance! The rush of endorphins from the exercise will help reduce the cravings and make you feel much better.