As some of you may know, March is Nutrition Month! This year's theme is 'Take the Fight out of Food!" Today I'm going to be discussing eating to cope with emotions- something that can make it feel like you're in a never-ending battle with food!
When it comes to discussing eating to cope with emotions, the first thing that gets discussed is what to do instead. Often there is a discussion of taking a bath, reading a book, going for a walk, etc. The problem with this way of thinking is it isn't addressing what's really going on, so it doesn't work for everyone.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to eating to cope with our emotions. The first is not eating enough overall, which causes us to be more likely to overeat. The second is not engaging in self-care: if you're not getting enough sleep or having enough time to yourself, it makes perfect sense that you would use food to self-soothe! The third is having food rules like 'I don't eat carbs' or 'I don't eat anything with sugar' because this leads to deprivation!
If you don't deal with these three factors, you're probably going to have a really difficult time reducing eating to cope with emotions. So when someone with eating problems is told to go read a book when in fact they're not eating enough and not sleeping enough.... well as you can imagine, this won't be very helpful.
1) Are you eating enough?
Something that I see really frequently with clients struggling with eating due to stress or boredom is that they are trying to restrict the amount they eat, making the emotional eating worse!
What many people don't realize is that our bodies are very good at ensuring we get enough to eat through regulation of various appetite hormones. What that means for people struggling with emotional eating is that if you haven't been eating enough, your body is going to find a way to ensure you do, even though it might mean you eating when you feel like you shouldn't be.
Most of us have experienced this: think of the last time you were really hungry and sat down to a meal: what happened? For most of us, we end up eating to the point where we feel uncomfortable because the drive to eat becomes overwhelming. As you can imagine, if this isn't quite as obvious but you add emotions like stress and boredom to the game, you're likely going to end up overeating.
This can be seen in its most extreme form in a study done by Ancel Keys in the 1940s in what is known as the Minnesota Starvation Study. In the study, men were dropped down in calories to lose 25% of their body weight over a 24 week period. Sound like anything you've heard of? Sounds like a diet to me. They were actually given more food than many would get on a diet these days!
Anyways, during the study, the men became obsessed with food. We're talking men in the 1940s staying up all night reading cookbooks obsessed with food. We have seen this in the brain scans of individuals not eating enough food when they're exposed to high sugar, high fat foods: their pleasure centres in their brains light up more than people who aren't restricting. For you, what that means is that learning to stop eating to cope with emotions is likely not going to happen if you're not eating enough.
So the first step is this: start eating regular meals and one or two snacks if you need them. If you are feeling very hungry by the time your next meal roles around, a snack is probably a good idea. If you aren't good at telling when you're hungry, try not to go more than 5 hours without eating.
2) Are you getting enough sleep, rest, and 'you time'?
When clients come in, often I end up discussing things like sleep and stress-management because if you aren't taking care of yourself, the eating piece becomes more difficult. If you aren't getting adequate sleep for example, your hunger hormones go up, making you more likely to eat more than feels good.
If you aren't taking care of yourself- always working and never having time for yourself, not getting enough sleep, not spending enough time with friends, always stressed, and no other way of coping, OF COURSE you're going to use food. You need to find some way of feeling better so it makes perfect sense that if you have learned to use food to cope with emotions you will use food.
So start taking a good look at your life: are you getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night? Do you have some time to do the things you enjoy like hang out with friends, read, or take a bath? Do you get a chance to just take a breath? If not, this may be a good place to start.
If you're feeling overwhelmed with everything you need to do, maybe that means asking for help from your partner, a friend, or a family member. If you're not getting enough sleep, maybe that means trying to start a consistent bedtime. Maybe it means hiring a babysitter a few times a month at night to give you some alone time! Really think about what you need that you're looking to food to cope with.
3) Do you have a lot of food rules?
If you are eating enough food overall, if you're telling yourself things like "I can't eat carbs," this can contribute to your emotional eating.
The reason for this is two-fold. One is that you might not be satisfied when you're eating! Let me start off with saying that I consider satisfied and full to be two different things: a big salad with chicken might be really filling but not satisfying, whereas a few pieces of good chocolate could be really satisfying but not filling. Make sense?
So let's say you're eating in a very restrictive way involving lots of veggies and lean proteins that are making you feel full, but you never really feel satisfied. You always feel like you want something more even though you're full. It makes sense then that eventually you are going to look for ways to be satisfied with foods since you aren't getting that generally in your meals and snacks!
The second reason is that we tend to want what we can't have so by telling yourself you can't have something... well, you're just going to want it more! It contributes to something referred to as the 'last supper effect' where you eat more of that food than you might normally before starting the restriction. In other words, if you think to yourself "tomorrow I'm cleaning up my act and starting that diet," you're probably going to eat more of those soon-to-be restricted foods tonight.
You may be thinking: 'if I don't restrict that food, I'll eat it uncontrollably."
I call these 'trigger foods:' when you eat them, you feel out-of-control and you feel like you can't stop until it's gone. I see this a lot in practice and I have to say, it is possible to start including these foods in moderation but you need to be eating enough first and in-tune with your hunger. If not, you'll likely end up overeating them.
You also need to think about incorporating them during a time of day when you're not over-hungry, not stressed/bored, when you're not distracted, when you're not tired. Just starting to eat them without a plan is likely to lead to a binge and will make you feel like you can't trust yourself around that food. If this is something you're really struggling with, I work with clients in this area so feel free to contact me to find out more about my services!
Once you've worked on the above factors, you'll have a much better idea of what is going on! Your drive to eat to cope with emotions may be diminished from these steps or they may not but we'll know there isn't something else contributing! Start paying attention to the thoughts going through your mind when you go to eat. What are you saying to yourself? When does it happen? What are you feeling? What do you need?
Please know that this process is far from quick and easy- it takes time! Try to be kind to yourself and be curious, not judgemental. I'm going to be writing more about this next time to check back next week! If you are struggling and want more support with this, you can find out more about my services here. Dietitian services are covered by some extended health plans and we offer direct billing to some providers!
You can stop using food to cope with your emotions and have a healthier relationship with food. It won't be easy but it's so worth it!