You’ve made the commitment to eat healthy and to toss out those chips and cheesecake. But there’s something else that you need to address before you can achieve a sustainable and lasting commitment to your new eating plan.
You need to address and what most people overlook – anxiety. If you don’t then you will fight battle with yourself that you will ultimately lose. But armed with the right understand and attitude, you can control your emotions before your emotions control your eating.
Managing the effects of anxiety on eating is a special problem for women. First, women are far more likely to experience stress and anxiety compared to men. Women are often saddled with the strain of balancing work and family. Second, women experience far more pressure to be thin and fit an ideal body type. Just take a look any newsstand, commercial, or other media and it’s apparent that thin women are by far the norm. Third, women tend to focus much more on their eating and worry more about it. While a man might be able to down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s without much guilt; many women aren’t so lucky.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is any kind of eating that is used to quiet the nerves (or any emotion for that matter, excitement and joy) instead of satisfying hunger or nutritional needs. Whether you grab a Dove bar or reach for carrot sticks, the type of food doesn’t matter; eating to purely deal with an emotion is a form of emotional eating.
Emotional eating is so challenging because it strikes us at the point when we are most vulnerable, when our emotions are intense and overwhelming. During strong emotions, people tend to be more impulsive and look for quick fixes: we want to feel better instantly. The quick fixes of the food world aren’t celery stick and raisin but the oh-so-bad-goodies full of highly processed ingredients, such as fats, sugars, and carbs. In a CNN interview Dr. Judith Wurtman, the former director of the Research Program in Women’s Health at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center, explains that “carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin,” a brain chemical often associated with mood.
There are also social reasons people emotionally eat. The most obvious is the availability of food, especially high calorie foods. On top of this, celebrations in many parts of the world, serve up healthy portions of unhealthy foods, making them more available and part of a positive emotional experience.
You don’t have to be a victim of emotional eating?
So how do you stop yourself from munching on that Dove chocolate bar when your nerves are tugging and pulling at your taste buds. A strategy to control emotional eating when it strikes is helpful but it is most effective to cope with the roots of this problem. The major cause of emotional eating is uncontrolled stress and anxiety. Emotional eaters tend to experience higher than normal levels of anxiety and stress. The better controlled your emotions the less likely you are to turn to food to calm your nerves. Here are surefire steps to get started:
- Become more aware of your stress. Pay attention to when your stress starts to rise and do something about it earlier on. Often, emotional eaters are out of touch with their emotions, block them out, and tune in only when the alarm bells are ringing. There may be simple steps you can take to calm your nerves before things start of feel overwhelming. Check-in with yourself several times a day and ask if you need to do something about it.
- Build stress management rituals into your life. You don’t have to do an hour of yoga everyday. Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician and author of The Relaxation Response, found that just 5 to 10 minutes of meditation was enough to lower stress levels and blood pressure over the long-term. Take a few minutes before you get out of bed to practice relaxation. Sit in your car and listen to the sounds before going into the office. Take a lunch break and stop working through lunch.
- Approach life with a calm mindset. Another thing to remember is that stress management is not just “techniques,” but an attitude about how you go about your day. Do you rush from activity to activity? Do you hold yourself to unreasonably high standards? If you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off, you will feel anxious and out of control. Try to slow down and throw perfectionism out the window.
- Improve your sleep. Sleep deprivation is a double whammy. The tired body craves food and chronic sleep deprivation leads to excessive eating. Sleep deprivation also increases impulsive behaviors, which (you guessed it) includes emotional eating. Changing your sleep habits is a long-term investment but well worth the effort. Try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Put off some tasks until tomorrow. Don’t put a clean house above a rested mind. If you have chronic insomnia maybe it’s time to get some help from a medical professional.
- Learn from marshmallows. Professor Walter Mischel, a psychologist from Cornell University, studied the ability of children to resist eating a marshmallow for periods of time (called delaying gratification). A fully white marshmallow was placed in front of a child with the instructions that he/she could eat it now or wait a few minutes and be rewarded with a second one. What Mischel learned was that children who actually thought about the qualities of the marshmallow – the taste, texture, and colors, were more likely to gobble it up. Those who thought about the marshmallow in more abstract ways, like a piece of cotton, could resist the urge. The lesson is that thinking about your temptations in a detached manner can help you to resist the urge to snack. If you can’t get chocolate bars out of your head, turn them into little pieces of wood.
- Have an alternative plan in place. Every “emergency” requires an escape plan. What are you going to do when confronted with temptation and your mood is awful – eat an apple, leave the room, drink a glass of water. Have some clear strategies in mind.
- Don’t try to avoid your urges, accept them. In some ways, our mind is like a defiant child. Tell it not to do something and it does it even more. Trying not to think about food, especially in bad moods, is a terrible idea. Mental health professionals call it thought suppression and it is intensifies our thoughts. In fact, numerous studies have shown that people who try to block out thoughts of food, actually end up dwelling on them even more and eating more. One recent study found that women were much more likely to use thought suppression to control emotional eating. The unfortunate consequence was that thought suppressors ended up with stronger cravings and binge ate more often. On the other hand, people who learned to accept the cravings and to see them as normal sensations that come and go (as opposed to these horrible feelings that must be avoided) tended to eat less. The take away is to recognize your urges to eat in distress, give it time to pass, and accept that it will be uncomfortable.
Now that you know what emotional eating is and steps to start working on it, ask yourself “what is one small thing I can start doing today?” If you’re a long-term emotional eater, don’t worry. This habit like any other can be changed by putting in small and consistent effort to manage your emotions and develop strategies to cope with temptations. If you do, not only will emotions thank you your waistline will too.
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