You’re an emotional eater

“I know what to do, it’s just that….

How many endings can you come up with for that sentence? As a professional exercise and nutrition coach who helps people improve their quality of life, I’ve heard it all. And so often what I hear is someone who thinks they’re the only person in the world who is dealing with the issue of struggling to eat healthier and move better. But that’s not the case. Take a second and read through this short list of actual reasons I’ve been told that finish off that beginning sentence and see if you can relate:

I know what to do, it’s just that…

  • I can’t seem to do it.
  • I always eat when I feel ____.
  • I have to have something sweet.
  • I have to cook for my (kids, husband, wife, parents, dog, cat, llama, split personality).
  • I’m so pressed for time.
  • I’m always/never hungry.
  • I love/hate food.
  • I don’t like to/refuse to eat (veggies, meats, nuts, foods that begin with L¬†– see what I did there?).

I could go on but by now you can see that many of us have one or more of the same problems. I’ve had clients tell me that they’re emotional eaters. Here’s the thing; when you look at the broad scope of our emotions, how they impact us, how they form our behaviors, you can see that in one way or another we’re all emotional eaters.

I eat when I’m stressed

This could take many forms. I eat when I’m stressed, happy, sad, anxious, nervous, mad…you name it. If you’ve read my Mature Lifestyles article, “What, not why” (August 2016) then you are familiar with how our emotions can be tied into food. To recap, let’s look at an example. Say as a child your parents bribed you to take out the dog by offering you an extra biscuit – hopefully, your dog wasn’t named Biscuit, that would be awkward – so you do the deed and get the food. This happens a handful of times and soon your brain associates biscuits, with all their golden, doughy, goodness (I should eat before I write these) and doing good deeds. So every time you do something above and beyond as an adult, you now expect a doughy slice of heaven.

Or let’s say you have a really rough day as a preteen and you’re offered some ice cream as a way to soothe the pain. Is it really very difficult to see how we can easily turn ice cream into a comforting and coping mechanism? “Thanks, mom! Rocky road helps me bury the pain deep down inside.”

What to do?

If you fall into the previous category, there are a few steps to take. Like anything, it’ll take a little work on your end. After all, I can’t do it for you, nobody can. You’ve gotta get to a point where you’re fed up, but if you’re like most of us out there, you’re probably already there.

First, finding awareness is key. How do you do that? By trying to stay present throughout the day, but especially in your emotional trigger moments. If you know you eat when you’re sad, visualize yourself being sad but interrupt the habit loop of comfort food in your visualization by seeing yourself recognizing the emotion. Or if you know certain situations will stir up the problem emotion, then be aware of those situations and be aware of your emotions. This will help you to turn off the autopilot, get out of the habit loop, and choose a better activity.

Instead of a comfort food, go for a walk, call a good friend, go workout, find a tasty, healthier alternative, write the next great American novel (or Tanzanian, whatever). Have a preselected option in your head that you know you’ll want to do. Then, most importantly, follow through with it. It’ll be uncomfortable the first time or two, that’s because re-wiring our brains and getting out of our comfort zones – no matter how uncomfortable those zones really are – is often an initial practice in discomfort. But it’s discomfort for the moment to better the future you.

Also, as a side note, stop thinking about them as “problem emotions.” There are no problem emotions. They are not the problem, how you react to them, that’s the problem. Our emotions happen to us for a reason. Their merely evolutionary signals that have helped us survive to this point. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you react to your emotions in a problematic way. But when you have flaming, alligator-filled moats of shame, guilt, or confusion built up around your emotional behaviors they will often make getting to the center of your emotional castle one hell of an ordeal. Brene Brown’s work has helped thousands of people with these issues.

Realize and accept that no matter the situation, there is nothing inherently wrong with you. Stop and re-read that sentence. And again, until it sinks it. Overcoming it simply boils down to a process of becoming aware, breaking the behavioral bonds we’ve developed to the emotions, and replacing them with healthy, “normal” (whatever that means) reactions. It’s a simple process, but not an easy one. It takes work and that work is ugly and mucky. Like walking through a swamp with poop in your boots while you carry a donkey on your back. But if you keep walking, you’ll reach dry land. And you can take off your boots to wash off the poo – how on earth did you get poop in your shoes? Wait till I tell mom, now you’ll never get ice cream after dinner.

I’m so pressed for time…

Oh, this one. Look, I get it. You have to work 3¬†jobs. Plus you have to run the kiddos to soccer practice, cheerleading, cross country, math club, and the babysitters. And you still have to go to the mall to buy that thing for that person for that one special day. And don’t forget you have to be home between 8 and 6 for the cable company. When will you find the time to pick up cousin Olaf from Russia at the airport?

Psst, wanna hear a secret? We’re all busy. Gone are the days of 1 full-time job and letting the kids find a ride to practice. We all live busy lives and there is no sign of anything slowing down. But I’ve got another secret, and this one is sometimes a difficult pill to swallow. Are you ready for it? Here comes the right hook: We’re not all the world champions at managing our own time. (The audience gasps). I’ve mentioned this before but the premise bears repeating.

Think of your day as a big cruise ship. Imagine all the responsibilities taking place on that ship. All the cooking, cleaning, activities, navigating, and other actions necessary for a good experience. Now imagine the ship with a tiny leak. It’s letting on a little bit of water. No big deal, right? This is a huge vessel and a small leak shouldn’t cause any issues. But what if a new leak springs up? Then another? And another? Suddenly what seemed minor has become a major, life-threatening ordeal to our sanity.

Carry that wonderful mental image – apologies if you’re going on a cruise anytime soon, while I’m at it, Captain Phillips, Titanic, and The Poseidon Adventure are all great movies – and take my metaphor to your life. Your day is the ship. Your responsibilities are the ship’s¬†responsibilities. But the water leaks are really time leaks. One is elemental, the other ethereal, but a leak of either is potentially disastrous. Let’s look at some life-saving solutions:

  • Instead of hopping on social media for 20 minutes, prep some food for the next day.
  • Skip an hour of your favorite tv show and prep some food for the week.
  • Check your email once a day instead of 3 times and you’ll easily plug up a 10-20 minute leak.
  • Let that text response wait for a few. The conversation will run much shorter if you wait to respond versus immediately flinging yourself into a thumb-flailing, maniacal masterpiece.
  • Not every thought, observation, or complaint is required to be tweeted.
  • If you get online to work, then work. Stave off the distractions.
  • Plan out your day or week in advance and find areas where you can combine activities.
  • Look for ways to streamline your required stops on your driving route.

The point is, we all have ways to save time. As I’m so fond of pointing out, every human being in the history of the earth has been given 24 hours in a day. Time is the one area where we truly are all born equal. Unfortunately, some of us have perspectives that are slightly askew and could use a little fine-tuning. I’m not pointing any fingers, I used to be a big-time time offender. In the above metaphor, I was the freaking iceberg that sank the Titanic – I’m sorry Leo.

I offer these solutions because even though I don’t have all the responsibilities listed, I know they work. Some of them have helped me, others have helped my clients, friends, and family. But the fact of the matter is we all have areas where we waste our time. And we should never be killing time because time is always killing us. Good God…that’s a great quote, but it’s just so dark. Sorry, folks.

Emotions and time, ok. What else?

For the sake of your eyeballs, I try to keep these posts to under 2000 words. At least until my adoring fans demand more…or at least until I have some adoring fans. I’ll be back shortly to cover the rest of the bunch, including:

  • overcoming a sweet tooth.
  • cooking for others.
  • always or never being hungry.
  • refusal to eat _____.

I hope you’re enjoying the posts. The idea that people could ever enjoy the thoughts that come spilling out of my fingers onto the keyboard astounds me. But I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful for every comment or message I receive. I’m grateful every time I see someone share my thoughts on the interwebs. And yes, I get excited whenever somebody joins the site. Look to hear more from me, and maybe even more often, as we proceed.

Share any thoughts you have down below. I’m happy to offer advice or answer any questions if I know them or can Google them fast enough to make you think I do.

Have a great rest of your day and do something nice for yourself – and somebody else while you’re at it!

Comments 2

  1. I would just like to say that as my life becomes busier and busier making time for food prep has become even more of a priority for me. I have less and less time at home now. Having food prepped and ready for me to grab as I run out the door to work and run kids around has given me more time and made my life easier.
    Many people think they don’t have time for food prep….but you do…and by making it a priority you will end up with more time and better eating habits

    1. Post

      Absolutely agreed. Creating an hour or two on a relatively free day to get food ready for the week is a great habit to have. Most of us are prepared to stay safe from the elements by having a home…we are prepared to get to important meetings or the grocery stores by having a car…we are prepared to pay our bills and have spending cash by having an income. In the same vein, being prepared for a busy day/week by having food prepped should be a part of our weekly routine.

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