Recently I wrote about cutting back on alcohol and how we must look at the emotional need that is driving the behavior. Uncovering what is driving emotional eating patterns isn't any different. The urge to reach for alcohol or a bowl of ice cream when we feel various emotions comes from the same underlying issue.
Ashleigh Warner, Psychologist, said it best:
When we can identify this need, we are well on our way to interrupting the habit pattern and finding alternate ways to meet the need.
Most people will tell me, “I just love ice cream! It tastes great!” While this is true, the foods we overeat are usually high in fat, high in carbohydrates, and salty or sweet. They are ADDICTIVE. When we eat them we get a rush of dopamine and opioids and our brains say “MOAR!” We are biologically hardwired to seek out high calorie foods as a survival instinct….which is why I tell my clients who are feeling shameful about their choices that there is no morality in eating. You are not bad or wrong for eating that pint of ice cream! It simply wasn't a choice that helps you reach your goals.
In fact, the shame cycle (as I refer to it) keeps us stuck in the pattern of emotional eating. When we scold ourselves for our choices we think that it's going to prevent repeating that choice. We couldn't be more wrong. We essentially keep our minds focused on the problem when what we need to do is focus on the solution. We need to get curious about what would actually have us prevent that behavior from happening again or less often.
You can take charge of emotional eating in 4 steps.
1. Identify what happened.
This is an objective look at the events. Example: I had a stressful busy day. I ate a pint of ice cream after dinner while watching TV and I wasn't hungry. Don't include emotions or judgement. Just what happened.
2. Identify what emotions you experienced before, during, and after the emotional eating.
This is where some introspection and vulnerability is required. This step can be really difficult to face but the more honest you can be the better. Example: Before I ate the ice cream I felt frustrated and anxious. While I was eating I felt better but it was short-lived. After I ate I felt regret and self-pity.
3. Identify the need.
Sometimes the need is unclear, especially if you aren't used to asking yourself this question. Try picking one or more from this list:
4. Determine what to do next time.
If you know what the need was it is much easier to create a plan for the future. For example, if you felt sad, maybe what you really needed was to do something nice for yourself that isn't related to food! If you felt bored, maybe an engaging TV show or a good book. If you felt lonely, try spending time with a friend/family member or calling someone. If you have no idea what to do next time that's okay. Ask someone else what they try when they experience the same need.
Lastly, I suggest pulling out a notebook and answer these questions about each episode of emotional eating. You may be able to spot a pattern in your behavior. Does it always occur at the same time of day? Is it always the same type of food? Are you alone or with specific people? Maybe you know that 4-6pm is the time of day when you are most vulnerable and that would be very helpful information and can help guide the solution.