Since the dawn of man, finding food has been priority #1. The need to eat has led to astonishing innovations throughout history; think of the remarkable, ancient Aztec farming techniques or the invention of the modern combine harvester.
We eat to live and some of us live to eat. Done in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with that; there are so many different foods to enjoy! But problems arise when we find we’re eating too much unhealthy food or eating when we’re not even hungry. In these cases, it’s less likely a physical need we’re reacting to but an emotional one.
The phrase “comfort food” first appeared in a Palm Beach Post article about obesity back in 1966 and is now a common way to describe the urge to turn to food when feeling emotional. While the foods people turn to may vary, the underlying drivers are rooted in the same need: to self-soothe. To use food to feel better.
But yet, this kind of eating usually makes us feel worse. Let’s face it, it’s easier (and more enjoyable) to polish off a bag of cookies than it is to psychoanalyze our feelings. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that the cookies disappear but the problems don’t. Over time, this behavior loop adds pounds but does nothing to address the emotional triggers which led up to the mindless eating.
So what’s a person to do? Mary Kate Keyes, Registered Dietician, Visiting Professor of Nutritional Science, and a MindFirst nutrition consultant, offers these suggestions to help curb emotional eating:
- Stop before you pop (that food in your mouth). Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry? Is this food the healthy choice?” If the answer is no to either or both questions then it’s time to take a beat and assess the situation before it gets out of your control. Give yourself time to understand what’s really going on in your head (or heart) before you put anything in your stomach. What’s triggering your desire to eat? If it’s not hunger you are feeling, what is it?
- Write it down. Have a notebook and pen on the counter (and one in your bag) and write down everything you eat during the entire day….all of it! Seeing every single item written down may be enough to stop you from eating in situations where you are not legitimately hungry.
- Reward your healthy decisions. Not with food but with something you also enjoy: a phone conversation with a friend; a cuddle with your pet; a cup of your favorite tea or a spontaneous walk around the neighborhood. It’s amazing how a little distraction can be all it takes to break free from the urge to emotionally eat.
The good news is that our brain is capable of rewiring itself rather quickly, replacing negative behavior patterns with these new, positive habits. Becoming more mindful of what’s triggering compulsive eating is the first step. Journaling your food intake throughout the day is another. For our MindFirst members, there’s also an online community ready to offer encouragement and shared experiences because sometimes, all we need instead of calories is a little friendly support.