stop emotional eating

Do you have a go to feel better food? Do you reach for food when you’re not even hungry? Or eat mindlessly – not even noticing what you are doing. Most people do. Most people will even tell you their big weight loss problem is emotional eating. But they usually can’t tell you why they do it, what they want, or how this food came to symbolize that emotion. They just want to know how to stop emotional eating.

I recently read Anne Lamott’s latest book – Help, Thanks, Wow. Although, it’s not the kind of book I’d normally mention on this blog, the part where she talks about eating really struck me. Here’s a longish quote from that section:

“If you are like me, you’d like to be able to understand and describe life better. Then you could manage and control it and maybe realize a small profit or advantage. But that would be death. And when you see that you have mostly stopped trying to do this, and are instead trying to remember to step outside when you’re buggy and to look up, you say, “Wow.” You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat. And out of nowhere in the store, a  memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegneys’. So you do the wildest, craziest thing: you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food. You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory. You’re not hungry for cocoa butter. You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order.

So you eat one berry slowly, savoring the sweetness and slight resistance, and after sucking the purple juice off your fingers you say: Wow. That tasted like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats, Pedro and Easter, in the McKegneys’ field. Wow. The blackberries tasted like sweet purple nectar, not dusty exactly, but dusted just right, not quite leafy but still alive, a little bitter around the seed, juicy and warm with sunshine.”

–Anne Lamott  from Help,Thanks, Wow

Most people I know can relate to reaching for the chocolate bar without even thinking about it. They just know that want something – they want to feel differently than they do now. And, although Anne turns this reaching into a bit of a prayer – Help – all you really need to do is pause. If you can pause and pay attention, you may begin to see and feel what you’re really craving. What emotion you’re really looking for.

Anne put it beautifully:

You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory. You’re not hungry for cocoa butter. You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order.

The steps to stop emotional eating are really pretty easy in theory. But they do take practice – and persistence.

1. Connect

Get to know yourself. Check in with yourself regularly, and begin to get a sense of how your body and your mind work together.

Notice how your body feels. Get clear on what hunger feels like in your body (ex. stomach growling, light headed, etc.) What tired feels like in your body (ex. heavy shoulders, tightness in large leg muscles, burning eyes, etc.) What lonely feels like (ex. drained feeling in muscles, quick heart beat, restlessness, etc.).  Practice noticing until you can tell the difference simply by paying attention to your body’s cues.

2. Feel

Pay attention to how you feel – day to day and hour to hour. Notice your feelings. Name them. And trust that they will pass. Research says that emotions have a short shelf life. In fact, they fade and change into something new in about 45 seconds. You can sit with anything for 45 seconds. The trick is to breathe. Just breathe and feel for 45 seconds. Notice where in your body you feel the emotion first. Let the feeling pass through you. When your 45 seconds are up, imagine the emotion flowing out of you.

3. Ask

Be curious. Your body – and mind – are trying to tell you something. Get clear on what they really want. My bet is, it’s not a cheap candy bar. Some questions to start with:

What do I need to know right now?

What does my body need right now?

What does my spirit/soul need right now?

What is most important right now?

What action can I take?

Will this action make me proud?

Will this action give me energy?

–Keep asking until you come up with an action that will satisfy your need while making you feel proud and energetic.

4. Act

Do the thing that makes you proud and gives you energy. Be kind to yourself – body and soul. Nurture yourself in a way that’s truly caring (not in a way that is self-sabotaging). You’ll soon come to notice that by simply letting yourself feel the emotion, asking the right questions, and taking nurturing action the desire to eat your emotions will lesson – and will eventually disappear. Learning to stop emotional eating is something you can do. Really. And if you need more help and support, feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to discuss the process further with you.

For more tools to help stop emotional eating for good, visit our Free Weight Loss Resources page. There are several activities to help you connect with your body, identify your feels, and avoid emotional triggers.

Do you have a story about learning to stop emotional eating? If so, please share it below.