Sometimes, when I’m sad, or annoyed, or frankly just bored, I pop over to Tesco Express and browse the shelves to see what will cheer me up. Most of the time it’s a cinnamon bun or maybe it’s the 3 for £1.20 chocolate deal or sometimes if they’re on offer it’s the Thorntons Mini Chocolate Caramel Shortcakes. I get home, stuff my face, end up feeling bloated and sick and then sit there and tell myself how naughty I was.
I know someone out there can relate.
Comfort eating/emotional eating/eating your feelings is pretty common for both women and men. I’ve spoken to a few people and their diet is generally good but it’s just those days where something goes wrong or someone upsets them that they run to food and everything goes wrong. For some it’s a tub of ice-cream (or maybe that’s just in the films), for others it’s ordering a pizza (out of my price range) and I know some who even eat peanut butter or nutella out of the jar. Whatever your junk food of choice is, it doesn’t solve the problem, in fact it can create more – guilt, disorders, love handles, diabetes, heart disease, belly fat, spots etc.
So why do we eat our feelings?
Food does that which humans cannot. Food tastes good and it doesn’t shout at us or argue with us and it’s always available. The 24 hour corner shop, the kebab shop, the vending machine, the local supermarket – we have everything we need at out fingertips. And the sweet variety is always cheap. Emotional eating is not about being hungry. If I am starving then I want a warm meal, not a slice of cheesecake; sugar-filled foods tend to feed us emotionally rather than physically and when we’re feeling down that is exactly what we want. Added sugar has absolutely no nutritional value, that’s why we can eat a whole bag of Harbio and still have room for dinner afterwards. Emotional eating is never satisfied when we’re full and usually brings a flood of guilt afterwards. It starts with a craving or emotional void and is not found in our stomachs but in our minds, and that is how we conquer it, by changing our mindset.
Another reason why food makes us feel good is because we have been taught that food is a reward. From childhood we’re told “You can only have desert if you behave” or “I’ll buy you some sweets if you’re good” and even in adulthood when we have a problem we “put the kettle on” or order a takeaway. What do we do when it’s someone’s birthday? We eat! We have been taught that “good food” is reserved for either good behaviour or special occasions or bad situations and so we run to these when such things happen and after doing it a few times, it works – we actually feel better after stuffing ourselves.
Food and you
It is important to acknowledge your personal relationship with food. Do you reward yourself with food? What types of food do you use as rewards? Is junk food reserved for special occasions? Do you punish yourself by starving yourself? When you “feel fat” do you stop eating? Learning to see food as nourishment rather than a reward is key to overcoming comfort eating. Realising why you eat certain foods at certain times or why you feel better after indulging into a warm chocolate brownie will help you to discover why you behave the way you do.
Try keeping a food diary, not just to record WHAT you eat but how it makes you FEEL. How does a simple breakfast of toast make you feel? How about a salad? What about a slice of cake? Then look back over your entries and ask yourself why you associate particular food with certain feelings. Personally, I used to feel victorious if I had a salad for lunch because I believed I was one step closer to skinny and better than everyone else around me feasting on chicken and chips. Now, I still feel good when I eat a salad but not because it will help me stay slim but because I know I am respecting my body. I know that eating vegetables can prevent diseases and will benefit me so I feel good when I eat them.
On the other hand, I battle with feeling guilty after eating “bad foods.” And that is the very issue. Labelling food as good and bad causes us to feel a certain way when eating them. We feel great after eating brown rice but terrible after a cinnamon bun (can you tell I really like them?). Food is not the enemy and we always have a choice. If you believe something is bad for you then don’t eat it but if you want to eat something then go ahead – but don’t spend time afterwards feeling guilty. If you chose to eat it, enjoy it! If you know you will not, then don’t! It comes down to thinking before you eat; when offered something, you can say no. Learn to pause before putting something in your mouth and asking yourself, “Am I really hungry?” “How will I feel after eating this?” “Am I just eating for the sake of it?” “Does my body need this?”
So what do I do?
Once you’ve acknowledged your problem, it is time to make some changes:
- Find something else to do: If you eat badly when you are sad then you need to find other things to do when you’re sad. Pray, go for a run or walk (you’ll feel so good afterwards), listen to music, draw or paint, talk to a friend or do anything that doesn’t involve food but will make you feel better.
- Stop food labelling: Instead of seeing food as good and bad, categorise food according to what it will do for you. For example almonds give me energy whereas sweets make me feel sick. Therefore, when I feel tired I know that I should reach for almonds rather than sweets. Take some time to research the nutritional value of food and learn what it will do for you.
- Don’t restrict yourself: The reason why we “fail” diets is because we tell ourselves we can’t eat this, that and those and so end up either not knowing what we can eat or struggling with restriction so much that we end up eating everything on our “can’t” list. Instead of telling yourself not to eat cake, tell yourself to eat more vegetables and instead of cancelling out a whole food item, tell yourself it is always available but you can only eat it until you are food. Once you know that you can eat it whenever you want you are less likely to crave it.
- Respect yourself: Your body is special and it deserves more than a bunch of chocolate every Friday. Believe this and work on feeding your body to make it feel and look good. Eating healthier will make you feel energetic and happier, not to mention giving you great skin, hair and nails.
- Phone a friend: Tell a friend that you trust about your problem and ask them if you can call them every time you are tempted to overindulge or when you do indulge. This keeps you accountable and gives you a source of advice and encouragement.
- Eat when you’re hungry: Work on learning the difference between eating when you’re hungry and eating when you’re bored or upset.
- Find another reward: If you want to treat yourself choose something other than food, buy a new outfit or go for a fun day out or save towards a holiday. Also, if you want to meet up with a friend don’t always choose to go and eat – find something else to do.
God gave us food to nourish us, there are plenty of other ways to find pleasure other than stuffing our faces. Learn to enjoy food but don’t battle with it; your body deserves the very best and so work on giving it what it needs and not simply what your emotions want. You’re beautiful; make your eating habits reflect that.