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Techniques to Manage Emotional Eating

Posted Mar 03 2010 10:01am

Emotional eating -- it's a battle we'll fight every day for the rest of our lives. Weight loss surgery doesn't fix it, losing weight doesn't fix it - it's a habit we have to sort out on a mental and emotional level. So learning techniques to combat emotional eating is the key to being successful with long term weight loss. Here are some things my psych has taught us in support groups and group therapy sessions that might help:
  • Know that it's OK to have emotions. The sooner we realize that emotions are perfectly natural and a part of who we are, the better. When we have an emotion we don't like or enjoy, we don't need to bury it, or squash it, or try to get rid of it -- that's what we've been trying to do when we eat to sooth our emotions. Instead try this: Sit quietly for a moment and acknowledge your emotions. If you're angry, then be angry. If you're sad, then be sad. If you're happy, then be happy. You don't need food to acknowledge those emotions, you just need to recognize the feeling, accept it and move on with your day. It takes practice and it's not fun or easy sometimes ... afterall, this technique means we actually have to face the crap we've been running from all these years. 
  • Say out loud "I'm not hungry, I'm emotional." Thinking it to yourself doesn't work... you have to say it out loud, hear it spoken and acknowledge that the action you're about to take is emotional-based and not hunger-based.
  • Know your emotional triggers. (upset, sad, happy, stress) and which trigger is the most prone to get out of control the fastest. And also think about which emotion has the least affect on your eating. For me I'm most prone to emotionally eat when I'm angry and least likely to eat when I'm stressed. Write it down.  Make a list and take the time to explore the reasons behind why certain emotions make you eat but others don't.  This is a process, so don't rush it.  Work in small chunks and keep coming back to this list to continue exploring your emotions on paper.  Thinking about it is fine, but writing it down makes those thoughts real so it's important to literally use pen and paper in this exercise.
  • Make of list of your trigger foods -- what do you turn to when you are emotionally eating? (ie: sweets, salty snacks, alcohol over-doing healthy foods?)  You might think you already know this stuff... but making a conscious effort to think about each thing, write it down and have a list can help you recognize it when it's happening. For instance one emotion might trigger certain types of food but a different emotion might make you reach for a different type of food.  But exploring the details of it is important so you know what battles you have to fight when the emtion creeps up.  So when the next emotional instance comes up you'll be able to more readily recognize what's happening before it happens and you can put a stop to it. 
  • Find an alternative activity. If you eat when you're bored, find a hobby that occupies your hands (knitting, scrapbooking, gardening). If you eat when you're happy, figure out how to release that joyous energy in a positive way (turn the radio up loud and dance around the house with the kids). If you eat when you're angry, find a way to get the aggression out (kickboxing, weight lifting, scrubbing toilets). Make sure you have that list of things written down too. So when you're in the midst of an emotional rant you don't have to be responsible for thinking clearly to find something to release the emotions... just refer to the list and pick something. 
  • As GI Joe says... KNOWING is half the battle. As you work through this process there will be times when you know you're eating for emotional reasons rather than hunger.  And we all know that many times emotions are much more powerful than our logical brain - so sometimes we win against the emotions and sometimes the emotions win.  But knowing that you're in the midst of an emotional eating binge is an important step.  Remember back when you didn't think twice about eating for whatever reason you felt like eating?  But now you're more aware of your body and you're more aware of how your emotions can trigger food obsessions.  This is a huge leap from where you started.  So think of it as one more baby step in the right direction.  Over time, we'll grow stronger and more able to deal with these decisions of handling our emotions in a healthier way.
  • Mistakes happen. No matter how hard we try emotional eating is going to happen. When it does, don't let guilt plague you and make it even worse. We're not allowed to indulge in guilt-eating to make up for the emotional-eating! Instead, acknowledge that you made a mistake, forgive yourself and move on. Don't dwell on it. Just make the very next step, the very next meal or snack... the right choice.  
 
What NOT to do to control emotional eating.  So often I hear people give advice to just replace the "bad food" with a healthier choice.  So instead of having a slab of chocolate cake when you're feeling sad, have a salad instaed.  The problem with this advice is that it doesn't really address the emotions involved.  You're still buring your saddness in food, just that it's a salad instead of cake.  The cycle continues.  And eventually you'll turn back to the cake because let's face it, salad is not very comforting in times of sorrow.  So it's important to address the EMOTIONS involved and how we manage our emotionis -- once we are able to live with the emotion and stop trying to bury it or hide it, our behaviors will reflect this healthier mental state.
 
~Pam
 
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