For many people, the weight loss battle can’t be simplified into one single solution. It’s not about “eating too much” or a “lack of self-control.” In fact, self-control really has nothing to do with weight gain. It’s what’s underneath that lack of self-control… those underlying issues that trigger bad eating habits: emotions. And emotions and feelings are what make it so hard to break bad eating habits.
As an emotional eater, you’re actually eating to feel better by filling an emotional void with food.
You eat because you’re lonely, sad, angry, bored, or fearful. Food can be incredibly soothing at that moment – and it can be the only thing that seems to make you feel better.
Unfortunately, it’s often the high calorie “junk” foods that take on this “soothing” role: they’re sweet, cheap, and easily accessible. And foods rich in refined sugars can even increase endorphins and give you a temporary “high.”1 Naturally, they become a “fast friend” when you’re feeling strong emotions. But then the guilt sets in, you blame yourself for being weak, and you again feel the need to eat to make yourself feel better.
Emotional eating can quickly lead to weight gain.2 And everyone has the potential to be an emotional eater on any given day – even the healthiest of people.
So, it’s time to start looking at these food cravings in a brand-new light. Because they’re much less about self-control, and much more about self-love.
How can you fight back against emotional hunger and better manage that addictive cycle?
Here are some of the best ways to get started:
1. Find Your Triggers
In a small notebook, start logging when you tend to binge or reach for comfort food. Don’t judge yourself. Think of this simply as a helpful experiment. What were you feeling when the urge to eat hit? Were you upset at something or someone? Feeling stressed or overwhelmed? It could be as simple as boredom. Try to be specific, and to pin down exactly what triggered the emotion and the urge to eat. Getting to the root of these triggers is the most important first step you can take.
2. Find Alternatives for Those Triggers
Make a list of the emotions that activated those triggers, and consider alternative ways to feel better (other than reaching for food). For example, if you’re feeling lonely, and this tends to trigger emotional eating, write out your feelings in your journal. Now, consider alternatives to eating when you’re feeling lonely. You could call a close friend or a relative for a chat, for example. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could sign up for a yoga class, or some other group activity. Do whatever you can to avoid falling into the bad habit of “eating” your feelings.
3. Eat for the Right Reasons
When you’re a child, you learn to eat by the clock. It often starts with your parents setting breakfast and dinner times, and then it continues throughout your schooling, where you can only eat at recess and lunchtime. Even at work, you’re often forced to take lunch at a specific time. But forcing yourself to eat just because it’s “lunchtime,” even if you’re not experiencing physical hunger, leads to eating for the wrong reasons.
The best habit you can form is to only eat when you’re really hungry – and to listen to your body’s hunger cues. But how do you know what real physical hunger feels like?
- Hunger should increase over time, growing stronger and stronger.
- Your stomach may rumble or growl.
- You’ll feel like you could eat just about anything when you’re physically hungry. You’d happily launch yourself at a kale salad if it meant you could eat immediately… even though you don’t like kale.
Tip: If you’re not sure if you’re hungry, try drinking a full glass of water and waiting 10 minutes. Sometimes thirst disguises itself as hunger. Regardless, you’ll at least feel full temporarily, and that helps you avoid eating excess calories.
4. Embrace Mindful Eating
In our busy, technologically-overloaded world, we’re all guilty of mindless eating.
You play on your phone while you eat; you watch TV while you eat; you play on your phone while watching TV while you eat. You have no concept of the food that is actually going into your mouth as you bring the fork up and down and gaze mindlessly at that digital screen.
Emotional eating is also mindless eating. You just keep scooping food into your mouth, without ever stopping to truly taste it. Switching off distractions and focusing solely on the food we’re eating can be powerful.
Try this: Focus on chewing each mouthful at least 10 times before you swallow. This gives you time to truly savor the taste of the food, and gives your body time to switch on the “full” light. It can take 20 minutes for your brain to tell your body it’s full, so slow eating allows your body time to catch up. And studies support the idea that eating more slowly may also mean you’re eating less, which is great for weight loss.3
If it’s unhealthy food, being mindful of each bite slows down your binging, allowing those “full” cues to set in. It also makes you more aware of the quality of the food, and how eating it actually makes you feel. Did you really feel good after you finished those two chocolate bars?
Finally, stop eating out of packets and fast food cartons. Place your food on a plate, so that you can see exactly how much you’re eating.
5. Fall in Love With Your Body
When you learn to love your body, you will want to take care of it. You’ll want to nourish it with good, wholesome, nutritious food. You’ll want to exercise (even if you find it hard) to get strong and fit. You’ll strive to be at your healthiest.
Exercise is a great way to fall in love with your body. Not only can it help you lose weight, all that exercise may make you crave healthier foods.4 You’ll start to see how amazing the human body is when you push its physical limits, and you’ll want to stop punishing it and care for it instead.
You can’t truly begin to fully love your body — or yourself — until you deal with your emotional eating.
How can you do that?
Each person is unique. For some, seeing a therapist could be a very important and life-changing step. For others, adopting a support system of meditation, mantras, or yoga can help them find a more zen place that helps them better deal with stressful emotions when they arise.
Incorporating social activities into your life can be hugely fulfilling and highly effective against some of those big emotions, like loneliness. You might consider joining a small gym or fitness club, where everyone encourages one another, or finding a new hobby in a group setting. Build up those social support systems. Humans were never meant to operate alone, and yet so many of us try to.
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