Eating your Feelings?: Mindset Shifts for Healing Emotional Eating
I am going to make a very anecdotal claim entirely unfounded by any scientific studies (that I know of).
The vast majority of people are emotional eaters. I’ll limit this claim to the population of North America.
And, no, I don’t mean that everyone has an eating disorder. An eating disorder must meet a very specific and narrow set of diagnostic criteria. I am talking about a preoccupation with food that goes beyond physical hunger and its satiation, and the use of food to manage certain emotions, such as boredom, stress, guilt, depression or even excitement.
Do any of these sound like you? If not, congratulations, you’re free! You may enjoy your cheeseburger/salad/Captain Crunch cereal without guilt.
With the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic and the drastic lifestyle shifts that many of us are experiencing, the urge to eat may be something that you struggle with constantly. As it stands at this moment, gyms are closed (in Alberta, anyways, where I live) and the government has asked us to stay home. You, like me, may not have a job to go to right now or much of a social life to keep you occupied. You might not have much to do at all–except think about what’s in your fridge.
I hope that you are reading this in the not-too-distant future and thinking: “Ha! This is all irrelevant now!”, as you head out the door, mask-free and sipping a nutrient-dense green smoothie, to meet your friend at a sweaty, jam-packed Zumba fitness class where you all exchange high-fives at the end.
But if this is not your reality, there are still ways that you can help yourself to regain control of your eating and, more importantly, to reach a place of peace and acceptance when it comes to food. There are many ways that we can change our environment to curb our eating, such as keeping tempting food out of the house and replacing them with healthy snacks, not grocery-shopping when you’re hungry, staying hydrated, etc. But what about our internal environment? Sidney Shindle, Infofit’s resident nutritionist and nutrition educator, discusses in this article how we can create a mindset to help us manage–or even heal–our emotional eating!
Of course, we always recommend that you consult with a health professional, such as a nutritionist or therapist, if you feel that you are particularly struggling with managing your emotional eating and to receive advice personalized to you and your lifestyle.
So, Where Do We Start?
The primary step to healing your emotional eating is the shifting of your mindset from restriction to gain. Shindle recommends that “rather than coming from a place of restriction, choose to nourish your body, without guilt.”. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. So, what can we do today to begin to heal our emotional eating?
Mindset Tip #1: Release the guilt. We often maintain the cycle of emotional eating by feeling like we shouldn’t eat (the restriction mindset), and then feeling guilty about it when we inevitably do eat. We attempt to ‘control’ ourselves which, more often than not, leads to more guilt and more emotional eating.
Recognize that the system has rigged us to eat, and to eat constantly. Our North American culture pushes food at us like we’re heading into a decades-long famine and every day is our birthday. Watching a movie? You need ice cream. Just completed a work assignment? Reward yourself with a Big Mac. Stressing out about the work assignment that you haven’t completed? Another Big Mac? It’s no wonder that so many of us have been conditioned to want food all the time.
Not only are we biologically wired to always be on the hunt for food, the food industry knows and exploits this knowledge to turn a profit. Many foods nowadays are engineered to be highly palatable and, in short, completely irresistible (if you haven’t heard of the bliss point, look into it!) Most people are not bingeing on carrots or quinoa. We’re bingeing on the foods that our animal brains have been primed to desire in times of famine–fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods.
Try this: There are a couple of actions that you can take to release the guilt related to emotional eating. Shindle suggests: “Opt to feed yourself whole foods, knowing that these help to keep you satiated and can tie into our feelings that have led to bingeing in the first place.” Consistently eating whole foods, as well, will retrain your brain into enjoying and desiring ‘normal’ foods and not ones specifically engineered to tempt you to binge.
And if you do binge or give into emotional eating…relax, move on, and refuse to feel guilt. “Forgive yourself, go slow and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself going back to old patterns. [The desire to eat] is deeply ingrained in human nature,” Shindle says.
Mindset Tip #2: Exercise. I don’t know exactly how this works, but for me, exercise was the key component to healing my relationship with food. I realized way late in the game that it was physically impossible for me to gain in muscle, strength, or stamina and to maintain my energy if I was undereating or yo-yo dieting.
Learn from my mistakes! It took awhile, but now I think of food as fuel and something that adds to my quality of life (the gain mindset), not something that I need to guard myself against (the restriction mindset). Giving myself permission to eat, even sometimes having to force myself to eat, really flipped the switch on my mindset of rigid self-control and guilt and helped to heal my disordered relationship with food.
Try this: Did you know that the dopamine and endorphins released by food are also released by exercise? Whenever you feel the need to eat and you’re not sure if you’re hungry or just bored, stressed, etc, get some exercise! Go for a walk, do some push-ups, and see how you feel afterwards. And if you’re still hungry, eat–guilt-free!
Mindset Tip #3: Food is not that important. I know, this seems to contradict what I just said about food being essential for your survival. What I mean is this: there is more to your life than what you’re going to eat today. Food, though satisfying, should not be a primary factor contributing to your happiness.
Shindle recommends: “Have your day focus on things that light you up. Rather than spending your day dreaming about what foods you’re going to eat and what foods you need to avoid, build your day around non-food related things, so when you get to a meal, you can be present.” Sometimes our desire to eat is really a byproduct of boredom, so finding something else to engage our mind (like exercise!) can turn our attention away from food.
Try this: Have fun with your day! What’s something that you can do today that you really enjoy, that you look forward to, and that will help you to de-stress? Write it down or put it in your schedule, and prioritize it!
Another effective trick that I use when I am tempted to binge on a delicious food, is to say to myself, “This actually isn’t that good.” Try it out, and see if that food doesn’t suddenly lose its irresistible appeal. Remember, our mind believes what you tell it–you can use this power for good!
Mindset Tip #4: Be present. A practice of presence and mindfulness can elevate every area of our lives, including our eating habits. Shindle recommends: “When eating, anything at all, but in particular foods that used to feel like a “treat” or “guilty pleasure”, get present. No phones, television, etc. Enjoy every bite. Notice how it feels and tastes. Take note of how you feel and when you feel satiated. Leave no room for guilt, only the experience.” Try not looking at your plate and the food that you have left–by focusing solely on the food in your mouth, you will not only enjoy it more, but feel satiated faster.
Try this: Meditation. Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between meditative practice and weight control and weight loss. There are thousands of free meditation resources available–including meditations specifically designed to help with emotional eating and weight loss. Sleep, as well, is an essential facet to maintaining a healthy, relaxed state of mind (sleep quality can also be improved by meditative practice). Studies have shown that even just a small sleep loss is correlated with a higher caloric intake the next day. So, help yourself to get that sleep you deserve!
You got this! Be kind with yourself and don’t demand instant results. As Shindle states: “Remind yourself that this is a process…Forgive yourself, go slow, and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself going back to old patterns. Take the time to honour yourself for realizing this, and then keep going.”
Sidney Shindle is a Certified Nutritionist and Educator with four years of experience working with clients. Her goal is to give clients the tools needed to make long lasting change. Currently, she works one-on-one with clients in-person and online, and runs a variety of workplace wellness seminars around Vancouver. She is also a lead instructor at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition and has created courses for personal trainers at Infofit. You can contact Sidney at [email protected].
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.
Bliss point (food). (2020, October 20). Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bliss_point_(food)
Dweck, J. S., Jenkins, S. M., & Nolan, L. J. (2014). The role of emotional eating and stress in the influence of short sleep on food consumption. Appetite, 72, 106-113. Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666313004108
Meditation – An Activity with No Downside! (2018, January 19). Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://www.infofit.ca/meditation-no-downside/
Tips to stop emotional eating. (2020, December 09). Retrieved January 25, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342