When feeling sad, apple pie triggered my client's emotional eating. The apple pie wasn't just a delicious dessert; it was emotionally significant in that her mother gave her a slice of apple pie to apologize after a fight when she was a child. Years later, despite her tumultuous relationship with her mother, who has since passed, she reaches for apple pie when she feels a little sad or upset. It makes her feel good.
She is certainly not alone. Around the world, we have adopted words and phrases that amazingly capture what it's like to want food in the face of emotion. For example, the German term der kummserspeck, which translates to “grief bacon”, refers to the excess weight gained by emotional eating. In Japan, their word is kuchisabishii, which refers to having a “lonely mouth,” which is a good cousin term to emotional eating. Humans everywhere have a penchant for soothing themselves with food.
When listening to my client discuss her relationship with her mother and her desire to eat apple pie, it was a stark example of how we can't treat dieting and weight loss as a system or set of rules to impose on someone to reach an arbitrary weight goal. Far too often, we forget the human side of eating — the anticipation, the comfort, the joy, and the reward.
I'm not dismissing the obvious downside to emotional eating, the unintended weight gain, health decline, and decreases in our energy reserves, or the benefits of practicing moderation and healthy eating. However, we often tackle emotional eating with emotionless rules and expect it to be a fair fight. We choose diets that, in theory, should work. They fail. We blame ourselves. We try another. It also fails to succeed. We don't realize that we have to fight like with like — if emotional eating brought you to this place, understanding your emotional triggers and learning how to process them properly is what will help lead you out.
Trendy diets that theoretically should work don't have that emotional support buddy to help us navigate the box of cookies when we feel especially low. We forget that our food choices sometimes defy logic, common sense, and willpower and, instead, are driven by a much greater need for connection and comfort. That's the reality we live in, and continually choosing diets that don't tackle this particular element of our food choices only stand to decrease our confidence, build up feelings of guilt, shame, or failure, and demolish our body image.
Not every emotion is as heavy or filled with sadness as the one I just mentioned in the beginning. Some of you may be bored, tired, or simply temporarily lonely. Some of you may feel a spike of anger or brewing stress. We may experience countless emotional triggers that leave us weak at the knees for a particular type of food.
A self-help online resource called the Help Guide offers a practical description of the emotional eating cycle. It says that emotional eating happens when something upsets you and you feel an overwhelming urge to eat. During that eating scenario, you eat more than you know you should, and you then feel powerless when it comes to food. After you finish eating in this scenario, unfortunately, the emotions that triggered the eating are still there, and the food did nothing to help you excise them. If you're someone who can relate to this, you may know that it's a genuinely powerless feeling, and there can be nothing worse in life than feeling out of control of your habits.
I would always encourage someone to seek help regarding emotional eating. We not only need to uncover why we are emotionally eating (the triggers), but we also need to establish a healthy set of alternative behaviors that let us process our emotions without stuffing, silencing, or disregarding them with food. Reclaiming food's power over us with the help of a licensed professional can be enlightening and empowering for many people. I constantly coach by the adage, "once you know better, you can do better."
Knowledge is power, and if you want to sort out your emotional eating, you can start bringing that awareness into your eating habits at home.
The first is to understand when and how you eat. You can start by creating a food awareness journal that charts your choice of food with when and how you feel when you eat that meal. For example, with that piece of cake, were you feeling anxious, stressed, angry, or happy and social because you were at an office party? You can even take this exercise further and chart how you feel after eating. Doing this for an extended period may feel onerous, but you only need to do it for about one week to start looking for significant trends. Start by looking for consistent times you find yourself indulging and look for trigger emotions associated with eating habits.
Next, you must figure out what to do with this information. We must practice and work towards activities that help us manage our emotions without using food as a bandaid.
For example, suppose you may notice that you are pinging with stress. In that case, you tend to eat something sugary after a particularly intense business meeting or fight with a friend or family member. In that case, you may choose an alternative behavior that helps you manage the stress without the food. You could use up your anxious or stressful energy by walking briskly or minimizing the tension by taking mindful, calming breaths.
Or, perhaps you have fun and happy emotions with food, and being around office parties or drinks with friends after work triggers you to eat more than you'd like. In this case, you could look at different social engagements that allow you to still reap the rewards from your friends and colleagues' positive company without tipping into indulgent foods you don't have control over. You can go for coffee walks or do something interesting like an escape room as an activity, which needs to be more centrally fixed around sitting at a table and continuing to consume during your catch-up.
You may also be bored, so food can stimulate you by giving you something to do and a flavor party. If this is the case, being creative and finding ways to alleviate your boredom without trying to excite yourself with food will be hugely beneficial. You can devise a list of backup options for hobbies or activities you like and choose whichever suits you when the feeling strikes. Perhaps it's calling a friend or loved one and chatting on the phone, going for a bike ride, or picking up that dusty novel you've wanted to look at for some time.
Without a doubt, as you try to change a habit as deeply rooted within you as emotional eating, any step you take away from that behavior will initially feel strange or uncomfortable. However, with practice, it will begin to feel normal, and soon, with enough practice, you can move away from associating your food with fulfilling your emotional hunger. The benefits to reap are innumerable – from increased feelings of control to losing weight, regaining energy, better sleep patterns, and a healthy outlook.