Healthy ways to cope with emotions and practice mindful eating.
How many times have you reached for ice cream in the freezer or chips in the pantry, not because you were truly hungry, but because you felt like you just had to have something to eat?
Those may have been times of emotional eating — eating to satisfy emotional needs such as stress, sadness or boredom.
While coping with food isn’t always bad (think celebrating a new job with a nice dinner or ice cream after a break-up), the problem arises when food is the only coping mechanism. It doesn’t address whatever emotional challenges we’re avoiding. Instead, we’re left with an empty pint of ice cream or bag of chips and a pain in our guts with feelings of guilt instead of satisfaction.
Once you recognize a continued pattern of emotional eating, you can take steps to reduce it. It starts by taking a hard look at why you eat and when you do.
Are you only coping with food?
- Eating because of feelings or situations, not because you’re hungry
- Feeling an urgent need to eat
- Ignoring specific cravings and attempting to end them with other food items
- Eating past fullness
- Regularly falling asleep while eating
- Feeling out of control around food
- Feeling embarrassed or guilty about what you ate
- Feeling like food is the enemy
- Rewarding yourself with food
Look for patterns
Keep track of when you’re overeating. This can help you figure out what triggers your emotional eating.
Record the times you overeat. Think about what preceded your urges. Write down your mood, what you ate and how you felt before, during and after eating. Look for events that may have triggered your emotional desires to eat. Did you not eat all day to make up for overeating the day before? Did you prioritize meals and snacks during the day? Did you take a break during the day?
Once you’ve identified your triggers, come up with other options for dealing with them. For example, were you feeling lonely? Next time, call a good friend instead of eating. Were you feeling stressed out? Next time, take a walk or a bath.
If you decide to see a mental health counselor for your emotional eating, the patterns you note can be a big help in your therapy.
Other steps you can take
Maintain habits that help you cope in other ways, or minimize the need to cope with food:
Joyful Movement. Physical activity that you enjoy can help lift your mood. It can also help relieve stress.
Get enough sleep. A good night’s rest can help you be more aware of when you are hungry or eating for other reasons and when you are full.
Schedule relaxation. Set aside time every day to relax and unwind.
Talk to a therapist. Ask your primary care provider to recommend a mental health counselor or intuitive eating dietician to help you develop a good relationship with food.
Jacklyn Jensen is a clinical dietician for Kootenai Health. To learn more about mindful eating, kh.org/nutrition-services or call 208-625-6493.
Sources: American Academy of Family Physicians; HelpGuide