How To Deal With Emotional Eating One Cupcake at a Time

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, today I'm going to write a little about the super fun topic of emotional eating!

What is emotional eating? It's a sudden urge for a particular food, often sugary and fatty, usually accompanying an uncomfortable emotion. It's when you go to the shops and purchase 10 chocolate bars, a wheel of brie, a packet of Tim Tams, a tub of icecream and a box of chicken nuggets for your personal consumption instead of dealing with a situation. Emotional eating is usually done in secret, not socially. Emotional eating is NOT enjoying good food or having the occasional party pig-out. Totes different things.

Emotional or binge eating is a common problem, so I gather. Why am I writing this post? Well firstly, the other day I was airing my grievances about some Sugar Quitting Plans, and it got me thinking about how certain dietary advice seems to wash over the issue of emotional eating, which, in my opinion, is probably the main reason why people struggle with weight and diets.

This thing is, if you've had any experience with Emo Eating then you will know: it doesn't matter HOW well-intentioned your plan is, it doesn't matter HOW much you want to not look like a strangled caterpillar in your skinny jeans, it doesn't matter HOW high your motivation is at the start of your plan - emotional eating tends to butt-in and mess things up, amiright?

Any person who has experience Emotional Eating will know that often, when your resolve crumbles, nothing will stand between you and your junk food, in spite of your best intentions. 

So my intention with this post is to fill that gap and to hopefully help someone that Google-izes this topic. I'm no expert, but I do have a brain and a cake hole.

This is what I know: you could be the most well-informed person on the planet with regards to nutrition and what you are supposed to be eating, but if you have an emotional dependence on food, your emotional dependence will always try to override that information.

It's not something that can be fixed with this illusive thing called "willpower" or with knowledge about nutrition (although that is obviously useful). Take heart, there are some little tricks that you can have up your sleeve. I'm just going to tell you outright, because no book is going to be this honest - these tricks are not going to help you every single time, but they will help you a lot. They're not quick-fix techniques; they need time and practice, like any routine, but they will help you regain control so that you're the one managing your life, not the King Size Twix.

I have wrestled with emotional eating many times, like a lot of people. It's so frustrating when you have health and fitness goals but your stupid french fry mcflurry brain keeps butting in. I doubt my "case" is severe - I've had minor weight fluctuations over the years but I deal because I never really give up on the health goals, and, I'm vain, I guess. It's okay to press the reset button over and over again when it comes to healthy eating and what not. But okay - you need to get some control over that silly bingeing beast.

How do you recognise it? If you're not yet in the habit of trying to stop emotional eating in its tracks, you might not even realise that you're trying to escape an uncomfortable emotion or situation when you're bingeing. But I bet if you thought it over for a second, you'd be able to identify a trigger. Even if it's something like procrastinating doing the vacuuming. Vacuuming can be very taxing on the emotions.

Food bingeing can be sought as a "remedy" to stress, boredom, unease, embarrassment, procrastination, or even the prospect of a pending diet ("diet starts tomorrow, better eat all of the things because this is my last chance to eat tasty food, ever"). But emotional eating doesn't even discriminate to negative emotions. Yep, I've had happy food parties, too - rewards for feeling on top of the world. Waaahooo!

A couple of years ago I read a really great book that I strongly recommend. The book walks you through some steps that require written responses to get you to identify the reason for your predicament, how to recognise it and what to do about it. Many of the lessons in the book have stuck with me. Case in point: I'm writing this post based on information I retained a few years ago - the book itself is buried in a box somewhere. Anyway, time to fire that King Size Twix, so let's get onto it.

BUT WAIT: Please accept that sometimes these tactics will work, sometimes they won't.

I'll get this bit out of the way. The truth: I still do grapple with emo eating and the urge to clear out the confectionery aisle at Coles sometimes. Sometimes the tactics totally fail me, but a lot of the time, they work. That's why I just want to be honest and tell it like it is: you can't expect to read a book and have everything fall into place (you know what I mean - when even the action of purchasing the diet book makes you feel better?!). As far as I am aware, there's no cure, so you gotta be willing to try and fail and try again. I used to feel like I was powerless under some kind of food spell, and saw Emotional Eating as something I would just have to accept and deal with for life. But after reading the book, doing the homework and drawing on the tactics over a few years, I brought le power back to me, just to sound like total cheese. I do make bad decisions sometimes but a lot of the time I can make a good decision.

Again: Sometimes tactics to sidestep emotional eating urges will work; other times the Chocolate Bitch within will put up a fight and win. You know that situation. The Chocolate Bitch wants her treats and there's no way in hell she's going to go without. On those occasions there's probably very little chance of using any tactics because Chocolate Bitch has already hightailed to the shops and is dumping Snickers into your shopping basket. You can't really work with those situations because sometimes they just happen. They suck, but no one said you can't try to avoid it next time.

Don't despair, once you start thinking about this more consciously, more often that not there should be that little voice in your head that is wanting to fight the urge. THOSE are the little moments you can work with. You just have to hit pause for a minute. Then what?

1) Pause to question your urges and start asking yourself what's going on

The simple answer is that I try to be mindful of emotional eating (usually classified as eating naughty foods on the sneak) and coax myself out of using food as an emotion-suppressor. When people emotionally eat, it's usually because they are experiencing an uncomfortable feeling and they are desperate to shift the focus away from that feeling. They attempt do this by distracting themselves with food. When you suppress an emotion with food, it doesn't solve the underlying problem, it just pushes it away for the problem to resurface later.

An uncomfortable emotion is usually a sign of an underlying issue and the need to work through that issue. For example, if you're stressed or anxious, you need to ask yourself what the cause is and what action you need to take to resolve it.  If something awkward happened and you are feeling embarrassed, although the urge to run away and jump into a vat of Nutella is strong, you really need to process the situation and make peace with it. If you are unhappy, what are you unhappy about? What steps do you need to take to be happier? Food is only a temporary distraction, not a lasting solution. When you allow yourself to sit with the emotion/issue/situation, process it and let it wash around you, even though it may be uncomfortable for a bit, the result is that you will often end up facing the issue and finding a solution, therefore moving forward with your life and maturing as a person.

Sounds quite neatly-packaged when I put it like that, but I can honestly say that making myself face up to my emotions and issues almost always results in some kind of meaningful realisation, idea or progress that carries me forward. I would not have experienced these ideas if I had been busy fossicking for Maltesers. It's not an easy process, but it is 100% more rewarding than just staying stuck in a rut with your Cheesy Poofs!

When I find myself craving junk for emotional reasons (totally different from enjoying a birthday cake or pizza night - social eating) I am now in the habit of stopping to think about the situation. I'll do a quick brain scan and ask myself if I'm trying to suppress/avoid/escape? Again, it's not always something serious. It could just be boredom. If it's a frequent problem though, there's probably a bigger issue that needs a look-in.

2) Have an imaginary conversation with that little voice inside your head

Sometimes if I want to talk myself out of burying my emotions in a Pity Pizza, I will take a few moments to have an internal dialogue with myself. For example, if something demoralising happens to you, your habitual inkling might be to find a treat to comfort yourself with. That's not going to deal with the issue. A better response might be to engage in some internal dialogue with that chastising voice in your head. The voice in your head might be berating you, telling you how useless you are, but you might just say to it, "That situation wasn't my fault, I did the best I could, and actually, I did pretty well in handling it because XYZ". Turn the negative into a positive - whatever is relevant to the situation. Counsel yourself in a kind and encouraging way, like a friend would. In essence, by engaging in this internal dialogue you are dealing with the emotion then and there, not squishing it with food. If you deal with it then and there, you are empowered, and you will probably even learn a valuable lesson, or come up with a great course of action for moving forward. If you squish it with food, the issue is unresolved and you don't grow at all (except for your bottom and pot belly). 

So, if you realise you're in the dangerzone of emotional eating, just hit pause and have a silly chat with yourself. Sometimes, this delay is enough to stop you from reaching for the food crutch. You would be surprised, once you give yourself the chance, how often and easily the craving WILL just wash away.

3) Remember that if you allow yourself to experience the emotion you will become a stronger person

When I suspect I might be succumbing to emotional eating, I sometimes find that it helps to remember the purpose of emotional eating: to block out an uncomfortable feeling. The opposite option is to let myself experience the emotion. When I remind myself that I will be in a better place emotionally if I let myself experience these emotions, it can really take the edge off the craving, and sometimes flip it on its head completely, where suddenly I truly DON'T want the food crutch because I'm more excited about the idea of working through the problem and becoming a stronger person. Self: One. Chocolate Bitch: Zero.

If you feed your uncomfortable emotions with food, you don't resolve your issues, the issues keep building on top of one another and resurfacing, plus you have the added issue of getting fatter/unhealthier, and you don't grow or mature as an individual. If you view uncomfortable emotions as what they truly are - a normal part of every person's life, and the opportunity to learn and grow, then suddenly, a lot of the time, you won't want to squash your emotion by zoning out with junk. You will be more interested in working through the issues so that you come out the other side a better version of yourself. 

Since having a few party tricks in my backback, I know that, even if I occasionally flop, there are countless other times where I have and will be able to make positive choices, without it being much of a struggle. Just remember, success comes from jumping back up every time you fall, and the more you flex your muscles (your tactics) the stronger they will become.

Please leave a comment if you have any experiences or tips you'd like to share.

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