Hi Fitties!

Top o’ the Tuesday Afternoon to ya! Busy day ahead of BodyRocking and healthy eating and teaching Hustle and PiYo and somewhere in that — joyful joyful! — I’m getting my lower back adjusted. Hot diggity!

I received some lovely comments on Facebook and email about my emotional eating post yesterday. In case you were curious, I’m a type 1 and type 8 emotional eater:

Type 1. Dulling The Pain With The Food Trance.

If you get really hungry when you feel angry, depressed, anxious, bored, or lonely, you suffer from Type 1 emotional hunger, and you use food to dull the pain that these emotions cause.

Type 8. I Can’t Come To Work Today–I’m Eating

If your appetite kicks in when you’re faced with new challenges–if you use food to avoid rising to the test, or to insulate yourself from the fear of failure–you have Type 8 emotional hunger.

I primarily lapse into emotional eating when under a great deal of stress about situations I can’t control (ie, submitting job applications and the company’s software keeps crashing, being in a big party with lots of people I don’t know, experiencing financial strain, anything involving probating estates…)

The trouble with emotional eaters is, unlike people who suffer from other kinds of addictions, we can’t just say, “Well, this behavior is unhealthy, so I’m just never going to eat again.” Alcoholics can avoid the bar scene and associate with sober people. Gamblers can stay out of casinos and stop betting on sports. But emotional eaters still gotta eat. And they associate with other people who eat. And often we associate with people in situations that involve food.

So if you’re looking to lose weight, it may just be a food issue. Maybe you grew up in the 80s with low fat everything and you don’t know how to eat nutritiously and years of Lean Cuisines and Diet Cokes and Snackwell’s cookies have left you overweight. Maybe it’s just about nutrition for you and all you literally need to hear is “eat less than you burn, eat more plants, stay away from processed foods and move your body vigorously every day” and the pounds come off.

But for others of us, there is an emotional component to our relationship with food that needs to be addressed because all the diets in the world won’t work until you understand what else you use food for besides fuel for your body.

I worked with a counselor on these issues and he once told me “All of human behavior stems from a positive intention.” So if you are sad and you eat warm cookies because it reminds you of coming home from school and having homemade cookies with your mom and feeling loved and secure, I think it’s obvious that you are trying to practice self-care (a good thing) and deal with difficult emotions (also a good thing). Sometimes our positive intentions are expressed in unhealthy ways, and that’s not good or bad. It’s just healthy or unhealthy. But you should have people in your life that make you feel loved and secure and if you don’t have that, and you need cookies for it, there is a gigantic red flag of something that needs to be addressed that is more significant than identifying how many calories you burned on your jog.

Recognizing it is the first step. There are lots and lots of books about emotional eating (Geneen Roth is a good place to start, so is a book called Shrink Yourself). There are also counselors that you can work with to identify triggers and ways that you can re-direct your behavior. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy and it helps you to form new healthy behaviors.

For the example above, let’s say your trigger is you had a bad day at work and you feel dejected and “sad.” So you come home and to cope with feelings of sadness, you pop the slice and bake cookies in the oven. You eat your warm cookies but you still feel pretty dejected (because cookies don’t really solve feelings of sadness, they just give you something else to focus on for awhile. Then the cookies are gone and the feelings are still there). I’m not a professional who can help you figure this stuff out, but I can share some of the tips and steps that I’ve learned along my journey. 

1. Learn to identify hunger vs. emotional eating

A counselor may help you first assess what’s going on when you suddenly decide “I really, really, really want warm cookies right now.” Generally, if you “need” a very specific food (for me, it’s grilled cheese sandwiches or homemade chocolate chip cookies) that’s a BIG clue that something other than hunger is at work. If I’m truly hungry, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good, but if I don’t have one handy, I can have soup or apples and peanut butter or an omelette or anything else that will satisfy my hunger. But if you want something specific and ONLY that food will do, then that’s a clue. Something’s up and it’s not hunger.

Even if you want a cookie, it’s okay! Sometimes we just want a cookie. But there’s a difference between, “mmm, I could go for a cookie” and “I really want one of my grandma’s oatmeal raisin chocolate chip cookies and no other cookie in the world is going to satisfy my cookie desire except THAT cookie so I’m going to bake a batch right now.”

2. Learn to identify the “trigger”

So once you get a red flag that hmmm…. you may want to eat and it has very little to do with actual hunger, the next step is figuring out what is the cause of your desire to eat. Generally, it’s something that happened almost immediately before the desire to emotionally eat (ie, you get an upsetting phone call and you hang up and decide that you need potato chips).

But it can be other things. For example, maybe you overeat at restaurants or pot lucks. Or maybe birthday celebrations are times where you eat more than is appropriate. Maybe this is just an issue of self-discipline and your eyes being bigger than your stomach. For many people, myself included, not being in control over our environment and our food is incredibly stressful. Eating food prepared by others, especially if you have a history of being very restrictive over your food, can be very difficult if you have very rigid “food rules.” The stress and anxiety of not knowing whether you’re violating a food rule can produce emotional eating episodes.

Holidays are another time when people can eat emotionally. Yes, holidays often present more opportunities to overeat, but often the family dynamic contributes to emotional eating. Perhaps you are sad because your holidays aren’t like they were when you were a child. You miss the carefree holidays of your youth and the holidays of adulthood are just terribly unsatisfying. So maybe you have a few too many helpings of foods that help recapture your youth.

There are so many possible triggers to emotional eating episodes, so it’s up to you to become self-aware enough to figure out what’s going on. You may not be there yet, but it’s your responsibility to learn to understand your own thoughts and emotions. 

3.  Learn to replace unhealthy behavior with healthy beavhior

Once you’ve identified what the feeling is (ie, sadness, anger, fear, stress, loneliness) that is causing you to eat and you’ve identified what event led to the feeling, you can deal with the emotion using something other than food.

For example, if you feel lonely and you realize it’s because you haven’t spoken with friends or planned any fun events with them in awhile, picking up the phone and reaching out is the solution, not isolating yourself with food.

If you feel angry about a situation that happened at work, discussing it with a friend or writing about it in your journal may be the solution.

If you’re fearful about a project that needs to be done, sitting down and setting up a plan of action may be the solution.

Sometimes, we can’t handle the real issue right away. Either we haven’t figured out what the real issue is (“I feel sad but don’t know why yet”) or it takes time to figure out a solution to the problem (“I don’t think I’m going to be able to make my rent this month”).

In that scenario, the best thing to do is pause. If you suspect that you’re eating for some reason other than hunger, ask yourself, “Am I hungry or just stressed about something?” Take a warm bath. Paint your nails. Go for a walk. Try to do something that doesn’t allow you to “check out” of your head so that you can analyze your emotions. Do you feel overwhelmed? Indifferent? Angry? Bored? Happy? Scared? Aloof? Then try to figure out what events of the day could contribute to that feeling.

It kinda makes sense when you lay it out like that, right? Remember, I’m not a professional counselor — this is more to help people who may not realize they eat emotionally to get started. Find books on the subject and find a counselor or group in your area that helps emotional eating.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about feeling deprived when you’re trying to get healthy.

You may also be interested in this post about what to do when you want to eat but you’re not hungry.