Why is it often difficult to have a healthy relationship with food, our bodies, and our weight? Why do we eat past the point of satiety, relentlessly criticize our thighs, belly, or other body parts, or base our self-worth on a number on the scale? Or why do we obsess about that ideal diet that will magically restore us to perfect health and also somehow heal our relationships, finances, and career woes?
The answers are multifold, but let’s begin with the inconvenient truth that life is inherently difficult, and when faced with worries about the economy, our families, our health, the current political landscape, gridlock on the freeway, and/or that annoying leaf blower at 7:00 a.m., it’s tempting to consume foods that can quickly change our mood.
There are a wide range of reactions among people to substances such as sugar, fat, caffeine, and flour, with some people being able to eat or drink these items without negative repercussions. However, for many of us, the subsequent dopamine surge (and consequent plunge) can be dramatic and perhaps over time become a frequent go-to when we’re facing uncomfortable feelings.
The amount and variety of sugar- and fat-laden foods on the market today boggles the mind. Just walk down the cereal aisle, pick up a box, and chances are that sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) is one of the first ingredients. We have not evolved sufficiently (nor probably ever will) to adjust to such substances, so it’s not surprising if consuming them puts us on an emotional rollercoaster.
In addition, despite the increasing academic and extra-curricular demands on children (soccer practice, debate team, cross-country track, volunteer activities, etc.), classes on emotion regulation are few and far between. We can now text someone and receive an answer instantaneously. Many of us watch TV while simultaneously playing video games, listening to music on headphones, and eating a hasty meal or snack.
We are accustomed to doing many things at once while not really doing any of them in a way that’s ultimately fulfilling. What with multi-tasking becoming the norm rather than the exception, as a society we are becoming less and less proficient at practicing impulse control.
So, how do we restore food to its proper place in our lives, where we can savor our meals while also practicing restraint and freedom from obsession?
- Practice eating mindfully. Yes, this means turning off your TV and computer, silencing your cell phone, and putting away that book or magazine. This alone may feel revolutionary and uncomfortable, but it can pay enormous dividends over time.
- Plan for your meal to take at least 20 minutes. It takes at least this amount of time for your stomach to register fullness, so you’ll be less likely to stuff yourself.
- Really taste your food. A few bites, taken mindfully, can be much more fulfilling than an entire meal eaten while distracted. A classic meditation involves eating a raisin (yes, just one raisin) over a 15-minute period, first looking at, smelling, feeling, and even putting the raisin up to one’s ear and listening for any sounds while rolling the raisin between one’s fingers, prior to very slowly chewing the raisin. That is a full experience! Give it a try.
- Rate your satiety level on a scale of 1 to 10. With 1 being absolutely famished and 10 being stuffed to the gills, check in with yourself several times a day to gauge where you are in terms of being physically full. Ideally, going below a 2 or 3 would not be advisable, as being ravenous (and possibly light-headed or hypoglycemic) might compromise your immune system. It might also set you up to descend upon food in a frenzied manner and perhaps overdo it. Also, going above a 6 or 7 might not be the best choice, as this would probably be both uncomfortable and perhaps a sign that you’re eating for emotional rather than physical reasons.
- Be aware of your emotional triggers to eat. If you’ve rated your satiety as above 7, ask yourself, What am I really hungry for? What am I feeling right now? What was I just thinking about? You might be lonely, sleep-deprived, bored, angry, or anxious. Try to address these needs directly, rather than eating (or obsessing over food).
- Food is not the enemy. People who have problems with alcohol or illicit drugs can (sometimes with help) completely abstain from these substances. With food, abstinence is not an option, since we need to eat in order to live. Similar to relationships with other people, our goal is to have healthy boundaries with food, in which we are neither too rigid nor hedonistic. It might be illuminating to ask yourself, How is my relationship with food like my relationship with people? Are you demanding? Avoidant? Needy? Obsessive? If so, these issues can be explored in therapy or self-help groups such as Overeaters Anonymous. Often the symptom (emotional eating) is the signal – listen carefully. After all, you probably wouldn’t take the batteries out of a smoke alarm because the blaring annoys you. This would just be solving the short-term annoyance and denying the real (fire!) problem.
- Figure out whether you’re a moderator or an abstainer. Some of us can eat all foods in moderation, whereas other people do best leaving certain foods entirely alone. To help determine what camp you fall into, check out Gretchen Rubin’s article: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/15/trying-to-resist-holiday-temptations-7-tips-for-abstainers-and-moderators/
- Make a list of ways you can take care of yourself that don’t involve emotional eating. Maybe you could call a friend. Take a hot bath. Get some sleep. Tackle that project you’ve been putting off. You can keep the list on your phone, where it’s likely to be handy when you need it, and you can add to the list as you practice becoming more attuned to what really nurtures you.
- Choose your words carefully. Using “shoulds” ,“have tos”, or “I can’t”, such as “I really should cut back on sweets” or “I have to stop eating so much”, can set up an internal push-pull, in which your inner child fights back against your critical parent (voices we all have, to some degree). Engage your inner adult. The above statements could be reworded as “I’d prefer to cut back on sweets” or “I choose to stop eating so much”. This puts you back in the driver’s seat. Reframe discomfort as growth, telling yourself, “This is uncomfortable, but I can handle it”. Using “I don’t” [fill in the blank] rather than “I can’t” is another way of signaling empowerment rather than deprivation.
- Practice self-compassion. Has beating yourself up over what you have or have not eaten really worked over the long haul? For more tips about how to develop self-compassion, see https://blogs.psychcentral.com/cultivating-contentment/2013/08/4-reasons-to-practice-self-compassion/.
- Be willing to face life head-on. Being preoccupied with food is a way to hide out from life. Developing a healthy relationship with food means that you won’t have food as a distraction. Ask yourself, What does focusing on food do for me? What am I avoiding? Turning your attention to your emotions and to the present moment, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be, is preferable to hiding your head in the sand.
We are not prisoners of our habits. It may take time and energy, but achieving peace with food and emotional eating is possible, and you are worth the effort it takes.