Most of us do it. Sad, angry, stressed or bored, the easiest “shortcut” to feeling better seems to be reaching for unhealthy foods or overeating in general. Food can bring all kinds of comfort and sensory pleasure, but it also gets seriously misused. When our eating behaviors are out of line with nutritional needs and normal hunger drive, we can end up suffering both physically and emotionally.
The negative health consequences of poor eating habits include struggles with weight (overweight for most, underweight for some who subsist mainly on junk food); high blood pressure and/or Type II diabetes; and increased risk for heart problems and certain types of cancer. But despite these threats, many people continue to overeat, or ricochet back & forth between deprivation and over-indulgence.
To begin getting a handle on emotional eating, it is helpful to analyze various influences on one’s relationship with food. Growing up, were you fed regular, well-balanced meals? Stuffed with food as an expression of love? Left to fend for yourself by parents too preoccupied with their own problems (e.g., depression, alcoholism) to consistently meet your needs? Was food withheld as a punishment or over-used as a reward? Did close family members treat food as a friend or an adversary? What kind of messages did you get about weight, body type, attractiveness and desirability?
When feelings and assumptions about food are not conscious, we are more likely to be controlled by old conflicts. You might overeat as a way of identifying with a beloved parent who coped this same way, favor junk food to rebel against someone who always criticized your weight, or habitually skip meals because you got used to doing without in a family that could not always afford groceries. Even if your adult circumstances have substantially improved (more financial security, supportive spouse or life partner, better preventative healthcare, etc.), when it comes to eating you might behave as if old realities still prevail.
Once you are more clear about where your unhealthy eating patterns originate, you can start addressing old issues that keep you stuck. Low self-esteem can be both a cause and an effect of over-eating. But the good news is, you can significantly improve your self-esteem just by taking better care of yourself! Making sure you get three good meals each day sends a positive message about the importance of your basic needs. Likewise with making time to relax and getting at least eight hours of sleep per night. If you are taking too much responsibility at home or at work, figure out how to re-balance things so others are doing their share. And if you are not assertive enough to ask for extra help, attend a workshop or read self-help books that will help you develop this crucial skill.
Another helpful strategy is to learn to be a “good parent” to yourself! This mindset can help you keep a focus on basic needs, because after all you would not let an actual child go out the door without breakfast each morning…. Also, it reminds you to maintain a loving, compassionate attitude toward yourself, which is necessary for changing any compulsive behavior. Although many people try to control their eating through rigid rules or punishing self-talk, these approaches usually backfire. Emotional eating is often related to feelings of shame and inadequacy, which only get worse if you beat yourself up. It can also be a means of “swallowing your anger”, which might have nowhere else to go. So to respond by attacking yourself with negative messages is another way of internalizing anger that really needs to be (safely) channeled somewhere else.
As you get more in touch with your physical and emotional needs, you will become better able to discern when you are really hungry vs. just wanting food to soothe yourself. Try keeping a log for one week, recording everything you eat and what you are feeling just before. Notice whether patterns emerge in terms of how much you eat and what choices you make, in relation to what is going on emotionally. Think about alternative ways to deal with feelings that trigger overeating, such as calling a friend when you’re lonely or picking up a good book when you’re bored. Also, notice activities and situations that trigger unhealthy eating; you can become “conditioned” to want potato chips while watching TV, or to unthinkingly stuff yourself at holiday gatherings.
Ironically, sometimes the solution actually involves eating more! As in…disciplining yourself to eat “real food” (a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, yogurt, an entire meal if you’ve skipped one) before having any particular sweet or snack. Then, if you still decide to have the treat, let yourself enjoy it. You can also try a rating system: on a scale of 1-10, how much do you want a given food item? If it is over six, go right ahead; if less, see whether you can delay the impulse and maybe it will fade.
Another strategy is to hold out for better junk. Swear off the vending machines, and when you want candy, take time to visit an actual store where you’ll have a better selection and probably pay less. (You might even see something healthier to eat, and realize this would taste even better than candy.) Stop eating packaged cookies and instead make them yourself, so you can have better control over the ingredients (i.e., recipes that use canola oil instead of butter, or call for relatively less sugar, or include nutritional ingredients like oatmeal or dried fruit). Become more conscious of when you’re just eating certain foods because they are “there”, e.g., doughnuts that people bring for your office. If you plan ahead, you can make sure to have something healthier and more satisfying to eat for a mid-morning snack. Or, maybe you’ll decide you would enjoy a bagel just as much as a doughnut – and that you’re worth the extra bit of trouble it takes to go get one!
Finally, pay attention to how you feel after overeating or indulging in junk food. But don’t just get mired in guilt and remorse. Instead, make a mental note of how unpleasant it is to feel too full, queasy from fried food, or wired with too much sugar – and refer back to it the next time you contemplate eating the same way. If you find that certain items always make you feel bad, consider cutting them out entirely and finding appropriate substitutes, e.g., fruit juice or iced tea rather than soda, submarine sandwiches rather than fast food burgers. Gaining more control over your food choices and the quantities you eat, will be self-reinforcing. Don’t focus too much on outcomes, such as losing a certain amount of weight. Just feel good about “doing the best you can” in developing a healthier diet and a friendlier relationship with food.