the eighth part of my deep dive into intuitive eating covering what it is, how to begin to put it into practice and my take on it as a registered dietitian.
Today’s post is all about coping with your emotions without using food, the seventh principle of Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program.
If you missed previous posts in this series, you can catch up now:
- Intuitive Eating: What Is It? – a basic overview of what the Intuitive Eating program is
- Intuitive Eating: Reject the Diet Mentality (Principle #1) – a discussion of the first principle within the Intuitive Eating program and the very important first step that needs to be taken in order to start your IE journey
- Intuitive Eating: Honoring Your Hunger (Principle #2) – a conversation about the importances of listening to your body and the very real biological responses that occur when we don’t
- Intuitive Eating: Making Peace with Food (Principle #3) – discussing how to embrace this very critical step of the IE process and why it can be scary to do so
- Intuitive Eating: Challenging the Food Police (Principle #4)– covering everything from what the Food Police are to how to work on overcoming their detrimental messages.
- Intuitive Eating: Feel Your Fullness (Principle #5) – discussing ways in which we ignore our internal signals (like fullness) and ways to get back in touch with them.
- Intuitive Eating: Discover the Satisfaction Factor (Principle #6) – understanding how to tap into your true cravings and how to honor them without guilt.
And you can always find all the posts I publish in this series right here should you wish to revisit one at any point.
Regardless of what you weigh, food and emotions have a significant relationship. Tribole and Resch point out that if you don’t believe it, just watch a food commercial. They’re not usually appealing to your appetite, but more-so to your emotions. Even emotions that arise based on certain situations – a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows when it’s snowing, a mug of coffee or tea and a muffin on a rainy morning. A big thick & chewy oatmeal raisin cookie after a tough exam…
No matter what it is, there’s no denying that eating can be an incredibly emotional experience. Whether celebrating a special achievement, a birthday, a holiday, getting through a hard day – it’s not hard for food to become connected to love, comfort and reward.
I think this exerpt from Tribole and Resch’s book is perfectly put:
“The eating experience itself, especially overeating, evokes feelings, and those feelings can affect your ability to eat normally.
One of the most detrimental feelings that overeating can stir up is guilt and shame. Studies have shown that although you might have immediate emotional comfort from eating, the negative rush of guilt that bursts forth is powerful enough to completely wipe out the relief.
Becoming an Intuitive Eater means learning to be gentle with yourself about how you use food to cope, and letting go of the guilt.”Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works
The act of dieting itself can lead to a whole slew of emotions that can ultimately end up intertwined with food as well.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Let’s take a step back to talk about emotional eating. As you would guess, at its most basic, emotional eating is when eating is triggered by feelings (anger, guilt, boredom, sadness, etc.) rather than your biological signals and cues.
In some instances, this can be very benign, but in others it can create a lot of trouble for the individual. Tribole and Resch describe a continuum of emotional eating that ranges from sensory gratification to punishment.
Emotional eating can often carry a negative connotation, but it’s not always something to chastise yourself for. As we’ve discussed in the past, everyone eats now and then for reasons other than biological hunger. When we nibble on a few things because we feel bored then move on, that’s an entirely different story than persistently eating in attempts to solve uncomfortable feelings.
In my last post, we talked about how one of life’s greatest gifts is the ability to derive pleasure from eating. If we’re not satisfied with what we’re eating, it’s likely going to take a lot more food to feel full. Most everyone has had a meal they really loved and enjoyed as well as a meal they absolutely detested. The difference in satisfaction between the two is monumental and that goes a long way in how much we end up eating.
That feeling of pleasure and satisfaction is what lies at the very benign end of the emotional eating scale. As Tribole and Resch state in their book, “[eating for pleasure] is not only critical to Intuitive Eating, but is a normal, natural part of living.“
As you move along the scale, you reach ‘eating for comfort.’ Having a few foods that provide you comfort (some of which we mentioned earlier, such as hot chocolate on a cold day) is also completely normal. Tribole and Resch say “Eating comfort foods occasionally can be part of a healthy relationship with food, if you do it while staying in touch with your satiety levels and without guilt. If, however, food is the first and only thing that comes to mind to take care of you when you are feeling sad, lonely, or uncomfortable, it can become a destructive coping mechanism.”
Passing the sensory gratification and comfort side of the scale that Tribole and Resch have laid out in their book is when emotional eating starts to become somewhat troublesome. The latter part of the scale describes the utilization of food for reasons such as distracting oneself from uncomfortable feelings (the root of which haven’t been dealt with), eating to numb yourself or escape from reality and eating as a form of punishment.
Some people use food to cope when they have no idea that’s what they’re doing. They think that they’re overeating “just because it tastes good.”
If you find that you’re doing quite a bit of eating when you’re not biologically hungry, then there’s a good chance that you are using food to cope.
You may not have deep-seated emotional reasons for eating, but just getting through life’s hassles with some of its irksome tasks and boredom might trigger you to seek food to make it all easier.Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works
There are many other situations that are common forms of emotional eating. Eating as a way to soothe sour feelings (such as anxiety, depression or loneliness), eating as a substitute for feelings of comfort and love, eating out of anger, etc. Here are several that I hear about most often:
- Boredom Eating: Boredom eating is one of the most common forms of emotional eating. If you ask anyone in your life, I’m sure the majority of them would tell you that they have, at one time or another, eaten out of sheer boredom. As we’ve discussed in the past, if this is a once & a while thing, it’s a benign behavior. However, if it becomes a daily (or hourly) occurrence, it might be a good idea to find other ways in which you can cope with those feelings of boredom (more on that later).
- Reward Eating: Using food as a reward for accomplishing a certain task, getting through a hard time or even as a way to get kids to behave is also a very common scenario. Unlike the benign form of boredom eating however, it can create some strong emotional ties to the idea of “food as a reward.” Because most people are always accomplishing something in life, it can be never-ending cycle and thus become an issue.
- Eating As A Way to Add Excitement: Have you ever made a special dinner reservation and looked forward to it all week long? It’s completely normal to anticipate and be excited for the pleasurable eating experience you’re about to have. However, there’s another side to eating as a way to add excitement and I think the following excerpt from Tribole and Resch’s book puts it best: “Our clients talk of how even contemplating a new diet gives them a rush of adrenaline—just imagining a new body and a new life. When the diet fails, the excitement is replaced with despair. At this point, the experience of going to the store to buy large quantities of forbidden foods can be one way to recreate the excitement. And then the cycle continues—diet/overeating, diet/overeating. This is exciting, but at what cost?“
- Stress Eating: Many people eat during stressful times as a way to soothe the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety it can produce. However, in times of stress, our biological responses actually work to suppress our hunger, and in doing so, our blood sugar levels rise and our digestion slows. As a result, when we eat to combat stress, the excess blood sugar produced doesn’t get used and is then converted to fat. Doing this regularly can result in an unhealthy weight (not to mention in an unhealthy relationship with food).
So, Now That We Understand What Emotional Eating Is & Its Many Forms, How Do We Cope With It?
If you find yourself eating frequently for reasons other than biological hunger, Tribole and Resch’s book lay out 4 key steps to overcoming this. Before each meal or snack, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I biologically hungry? Remember back to when we discussed those hunger & satiety cues? Are they there? If so, then honor your hunger and eat! If they’re not there, then ask yourself:
- What am I feeling that’s compelling me to eat? For some, this might be really easy to do, but for others it can be incredibly uncomfortable to take a look at what’s driving you to eat – especially if you’ve been using food as a way to avoid dealing with those feelings. Try writing out what you’re feeling, talking to a friend or loved one about them and/or working with a therapist to get at the root of what’s driving you to eat when you’re not hungry.
- What do I need? Have you ever read that if you’re feeling hungry sooner than you anticipated you would be that you should drink water? The idea behind this is that often when we’re feeling like we want to participate in the act of eating despite not feeling biologically hungry, it’s because we’re trying to fulfill an unmet need. In some instances it could be thirst, in others it could be exhaustion. Taking time to sit and ask yourself what it is you actually need is helpful in determining what that unmet need is. Once you’ve figured it out, you can meet is and it’s likely that will curb the emotional eating.
- Would you please? I’m certainly guilty of not asking for help when I need it. I’ll always try to do everything myself until I just…can’t. In their book Tribole and Resch discuss how often asking the “what do I need?” question can lead to asking the “would you please?” question. If you find you often partake in emotional eating at the end of the day because you’re exhausted from the days tasks but know you still need to get dinner on the table, perhaps ask your spouse or roommate for help with preparing dinner. Sometimes I’ll just ask Chad to take Owen upstairs to play so that I can cook dinner in peace in the kitchen. It makes an immense difference in my mental state and any stress eating I might otherwise do while preparing dinner in a less peaceful environment dissipates. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help! I often feel guilty doing so but have learned over the years that it makes those around me feel good to be able to help me when I need it.
In addition to the above, when working to overcome emotional eating, it’s important to:
- Remind yourself that your needs matter and they deserve to be met. When I first had Owen, I remember feeling so incredibly overwhelmed. Suddenly I wasn’t able to tend to my every need because I had this little being that was depending on me to tend to his! It took me a while to realize that if I didn’t take the time to care for myself, I couldn’t take good care of him. Once I finally started asking for help (so that I could do basic things like take a shower, sneak in a nap or even take a walk!) it made a world of difference. When we push our needs aside, we often seek other things (such as food) to try to fill that gap. While it’s wonderful to be there for your family, friends and loved ones, make sure doing so doesn’t take away from your being able to meet your own most essential needs.
- Find nurture. Similar to the above, whether you find nurture in the arms of a friend or loved one, or nurture yourself, it’s important to make room for this in your life. Food is often used in situations where one is missing comfort. To end emotional eating, it’s important to find other sources of nurturing; whether it’s booking yourself a massage, taking a long bath with a good book, listening to music, enjoying time with family and friends. Whatever brings your soul comfort and peace, it’s critical you make room for it.
- Face your feelings. As we discussed above, burying your feelings might feel easier, but long-term it can create a number of self-destructive behaviors. Whether you seek counseling, write in a journal, talk to a trusted confidant or even just sit and allow yourself to feel your feelings, it’s important that you address them – in whatever way makes sense for you. When food becomes your way of distracting from those feelings, it can create a never-ending cycle of eating. You’ll never be able to break out of that cycle until you’ve dealt with the core feelings that are causing you to seek food in the first place.
- Distract without Food. How many times have you heard “take a walk” or “read a book” to distract yourself when you feel hungry? While you absolutely should be eating when you feel hungry, there are many times when people eat just to avoid a task at hand. A particular project at work or school you don’t want to get started on, a chore that doesn’t sound appealing, etc. When those things drag on for days or weeks, it can become a problem. In those instances of emotional eating, finding a different way to distract yourself is key. Think of other things you love and enjoy – taking a walk, reading a book, taking a bath, taking a nap, gardening, etc. – and use those as distractors rather than turning to food.
When you do finally break free from emotional eating, it can be a strange feeling. For those that have long utilized eating to cope with their emotions, there may be a sense of loss that your long-time companion, the thing you turned to help you cope, is no longer there. This grieving period is normal and ultimately will pass. In those moments remind yourself that you have the right to feel happy and healthy and that they way you utilized food in the past made you feel the opposite of that. If the feelings you used to cover up with food are now making you uncomfortable, consider meeting with a professional to help you work through them.
As you remove food as a coping mechanism, your relationship with food will only become more positive and pleasurable.