Something that I believe is much more common than we think is emotional eating. It can actually come in the smallest gestures such as treating yourself to an extra serving of veggies or a piece of chocolate out of sadness or to feel happier, even if sometimes you’re already full. Emotional eating is not a serious problem for everyone, and it’s normal to sometimes associate food with emotions. However, it is absolutely chronic if your own emotions start to influence your diet negatively. And I believe that it can work both ways, though overeating out of emotion is more common. Read my little anecdote for the proof where I share a personal experience of emotional eating in both cases. Believe me, emotional eating is very real.
Once upon a time, there were two young sisters of a happy family. The two sisters were named Binger and Restricter. Even though the two sisters were inseparable and health-conscious, they were extremely different in their own ways, especially in how they dealt with eating.
Binger was the real life #goals girl: she was pretty, witty, a star athlete, honors student, social butterfly and was extremely sharp for her age. She knew how to stick up for herself, knew what advice to give her friends and family, and also knew what was currently trending. One day during sports practice, Binger severely injured her hand and was banned from practicing until her fingers healed. Not practicing rigorously every day led her to think more about food and her stressful school work. The pressure to fit in and stay on top was too much for Binger that she saw food as a source for comfort. Even if she ate a substantial meal, she would still eat over her hunger levels, only to berate herself afterwards. To her, exercise was a form of punishment; going to the gym = burning off calories. She found no point in exercise because she thought eating smaller amounts was more important in maintaining weight. At the same time she tried to find something negative in everything she ate: “that had a lot of oil”, “fruit = sugar” or “vegetables aren’t calorie free”. Her once healthy relationship with food as fuel became a fear in which food was like a horrible ex-boyfriend.
Restricter, on the other hand, had a much more modest background. She grew up overweight, had Asperger’s syndrome, had to work a lot harder to get good grades than Binger, played no sports because of her epilepsy, had little to no friends and knew little norms and slang of her peers. Tired of feeling miserable, she started running, eating green salads, weight training and drinking more water and green tea to lose over thirty pounds. While she wasn’t as physically coordinated as Binger, she proudly knew that she was more knowledgeable about food and portion intake than her sister. Meanwhile, Restricter had an even more stressful load of school work. Whenever she failed a quiz or a test, her parents would harshly lecture her, making her feel inferior. She lost enjoyment in food and only wanted to think about her failures. Her appetite and mood were directly proportional: when her mood went down, so did her food intake. Even though she lost natural desire to eat food when she was unhappy, Restricter cautiously demonstrated a sense of restraint with food. Even when she did something that was barely harmful, she chose not to eat as much or eat foods she found boring and tasteless. Exercise was a “break” to forget about school and get high from endorphins. The addition of eating less than her normal food intake and double the exercise led her to lose muscle mass and make her feel tired, anxious and cold all the time. Restricter not only became more apathetic about what she was once so passionate about, but also saw food as a reward she never deserved.
Okay, you probably get the gist of it. This little fairy tale is indeed based on true events. Binger is what my sister once was, and Restricter was me. Neither of us were actually diagnosed with an eating disorder or sought treatment, but we once dealt with seriously problematic relationships with food that took a toll both on our well-being and how we treated our friends and family.
It’s obviously more common for people to say that they eat more when they’re unhappy, but in my opinion, it could also work the opposite way where people don’t eat at all or eat less when they’re sad–and it’s just as bad. First thing’s first, emotional eating is a serious problem that should NEVER be taken lightly. Just telling someone to eat less or eat more or try to forget about it will. Not. Work. It can actually work as positive reinforcement, meaning that people are encouraged to continue their habits, whether healthy or not.
Sometimes they can’t help it. Even when people try to do something else, food comes back in their minds and they start eating and eating again. Or, when the time for eating does come, they shut themselves away and push back as much as they can because they believe they don’t deserve to eat.
If you’re more like Binger….
- Look at your diet now. Is it low in a particular food or nutrient? Do you find yourself seeing foods as “good” or “bad”? Are there any boundaries? Your current mindset of food could actually be what is causing your overeating occurrences. Learn to stop labeling or categorizing foods as good or bad. You can start off small such as adding an extra teaspoon of peanut butter for dessert, one egg yolk in your next omelet, buying the “100 calorie” microwave popcorn or simply taking one bite out of that restaurant’s cheesecake. Giving into your craving the TINIEST bit can actually make a huge difference in how you’ll feel.
- Find simpler ways to move, then work upward. Start off by walking the dog, taking out the trash or by taking at least thirty minutes a day to clean up your room or your desk. Try to make your overall lifestyle–sans exercise–more physically demanding. Then, once you get used to moving a lot more, you will discover exercises you enjoy and gain motivation to do them more often!
- Do not act if the urge comes, but acknowledge it. Say you’re at the Thanksgiving dinner table. You see the delicious, creamy, buttery, hot fatty foods and want to eat it all. You’ve already eaten, but you feel as if you can still eat the entire dinner buffet. Remove yourself from the room, sit down and listen to your urges. Focus and listen. Once you’ve mentally exhausted yourself from the situation, you should be clear-headed enough to come back and look at the food without any temptation.
- Increase volume in foods without increasing too much caloric value–NOT for weight loss purposes, but to simply find out where your “fullness” level is without making yourself feel bad. Replace that third banana in your smoothie with a cup of ice, which will give your smoothie just as much volume and will keep you satisfied like a normal banana. Or, use more water in oats or one of my suggested oatmeal thickeners, the best ones in this case being more liquid, egg whites, zucchini and cauliflower. As you become more in tune with your fullness levels, start to gradually remain in that happy medium.
- Write how you feel every time you binge and save it. When the urge comes, you can refer back to these documents and remember that the after-guilt is just not worth it. This tip won’t work for everyone, but giving it a try doesn’t hurt.
If you’re more like Restricter….
- Learn to love yourself. This is probably hands down the hardest step of the process, but it is so so important to your well-being. Life is pointless if you have never ever loved yourself, because you are what is keeping you alive, you have so many gifts that you probably underestimate, and there are people out there who love you and treasure you. Remember this before you hit rock bottom. When things get rough, know that those issues are temporary and you will find yourself in ten years so much stronger.
- Know that you work hard. Really, you do. We’re told that we only work hard if we sweat, we stay up late hours and succeed in the end. Wanna know whether or not you worked hard? You know that there was nothing better you could do to change the situation, and if you’ve become a stronger and wiser person in the end. Everyone gets what they deserve in the end, but no matter what, you’ve got to give everything your all.
- Remember that rest is productive, too. This applies to both physical and mental rest. No matter what, you need to sacrifice time to rejuvenate. Stress only worsens if you overexert yourself, and will lead to much more serious consequences such as injury, hormone imbalance, general anxiety, eating disorders, and more. If you have to drag yourself to exercise, don’t. I find that when I overexercise, I’m incredibly exhausted, I’m sleepy all the time and I always feel sore moving around. Decrease the time and intensity of your workouts for at least one or two days out of each day you exercise and you will find that during the hours you don’t workout, you will have so much more energy. Also, take some time off of school, work, college or whatever and just do something that makes you happy. If you don’t have a hobby, go out for a walk, do some yoga or watch a funny or heartfelt video.
- If your weight loss is chronic, find ways to sneak more calories back into your diet. My weight loss wasn’t too serious, but losing too many pounds is definitely possible. Cook with more healthy fats and calorie dense carbohydrates, protein and natural sugars, my favorites being avocados, nut butters, coconut, nuts, dried fruits, dates, grapes, figs, seeds, tahini, olive oil, dark chocolate, salmon, honey, maple syrup, naturally sweetened granola, etc. Do continue to eat healthy, lower calorie foods but cooked in a different way, such as olive-oil roasting vegetables or adding full-fat coconut milk into your next bean curry.
- Learn to change the way you view food. We are humans, and we need to eat! Food is not the enemy. Food is not a reward. Food is not as complicated as it should be; it is energy, and just find the best, most nutrient dense sources for 80-90% of the time with a little treat here and there if you desire.
Either way, LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Your desire to over or under eat is a voice that needs to be heard but that we are told to silence. Do you know how sometimes you want to say something but you’re constantly silenced or talked over, then prompting you to scream over everyone? It works the same way. However, do not let that voice control you, because it’s not something you’ll have forever if you don’t let it. There are more important things to life than food, and there is more to do with your time than letting your emotions get the best of you and your eating.