I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t struggle with emotional eating. I’ve worked with women who eat emotionally due to the stress of work; others eat on auto-pilot out of boredom or anxiety; and others use food as a form of procrastination. Whatever the reason, women want to put an end to emotional eating because they feel out of control; they are tired of having a black or white relationship with food; and it’s taking a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional health. There are two main reasons why you eat emotionally.
First, you’re using food to escape uncomfortable emotions such as stress, anxiety or loneliness. That’s why I like calling it “emotional escaping”. I’ve written about the different ways to address the emotional side of emotional eating (you can read more here and here).
The other (underrated!) explanation is that you restrict and don't allow yourself to enjoy those foods you overeat.
Nine out of 10 times, the women I work with avoid sugar or carbs. This only keeps these foods scary and exciting.
As I wrote in my last blog, emotional eating is a natural result of controlling food, especially when you do it out of fear that you’ll gain weight or shame for your “lack of willpower”.
If you started a new detox or 21-day clean eating challenge AND then face a stressful situation at work, be certain that you’ll hit the vending machine and eat three granola bars, or stand in front of the fridge eating rice cakes and hummus until you finish the box.
Restriction + emotional hunger = emotional eating bomb!
The solution? Give yourself permission to eat your fear-foods.
I know what you’re thinking (I thought so too, and so do my clients): “But if I allow myself to eat cookies and fries I’ll lose it and gain 20 pounds!”
I know it can be scary! Permission and flexibility is not something you’re familiar with.
Be open-minded and do it gradually. Here are three tips to experiment with full permission:
Write a list of your fear-foods. All of them! For me, it was pizza, bread, chips, chocolate, and cookies. Pick one of those foods and plan to eat it a few times this week. The key to this practice is that you deliberately choose a moment in which you’ll be present and relaxed. No interruptions or distractions (e.g. TV, Instagram). When we eat emotionally, we’re often alone, doing something else, and don’t even enjoy the food. For this experiment, you’re going to sit down and eat your fear-food slowly, breathing, and enjoying each bite. Stop when you stop feeling pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether you do it alone or in the company of others. Whatever works for you is fine. You might want to write down a few of the things you experience during the exercise.
Elevate the quality of your fear-foods. This was a powerful strategy that allowed me to trust food and my body again. I slowly created my own food philosophy around desserts, for example. I wouldn’t eat the chocolate cake people left in the office pantry; instead, I would eat a slice of cake from my favorite bakery. I noticed that elevating the quality of the desserts I chose to eat—gaining clarity about my preferences!—allowed me to enjoy foods I considered off-boundaries.
Reflect on why you feel the way you feel about your fear-foods. Where did you learn those foods were bad? Is it necessarily true? Fear is an emotion and it takes the form of a food gremlin that judges your eating choices and screams, “You’re bad if you eat bread!”. Challenge the inner critic and question your beliefs about food. You might want to write down your responses to these questions or talk about it with a friend.
These three practices worked for my clients and me. But, as I tell my clients, tweak them as you please and do what works for you in the body and the mind.
When you address your emotional hunger and start giving yourself permission to eat foods you avoid out of fear, you’ll see how emotionally eating gradually becomes a thing of the past.