Stop emotional eating before it leads to overeating

- February 7th, 2010
Michelle May

Dr. Michelle May

Reformed yo-yo dieter Michelle May suggests we should all eat like babies.

But wait … forget the high chair and bib.

And no, that doesn’t mean start slobbering, squishing food between your fingers, or sticking the remnants of a mashed-up meal into your ears, nose and hair.

Rather, we should be eating like babies in terms of eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full and not thinking about food again until we’re hungry again.

“(As a baby) I ate what I loved and didn’t overeat the things I liked because food didn’t have any power over me,” she adds.

As people grow older, May points out, many find themselves eating due to environmental triggers – time of day, presence of food, free food, food that they paid for or large portions – and emotional triggers – boredom, loneliness, stress, sadness, anger, love or celebration.

“Emotional connections to food are woven into the fabric of our social experience,” she points out. “Notice how often food is at the centre of your celebrations: holiday office parties, baking Christmas cookies with grandma, and sharing traditional meals with your family. Eating is a wonderful way to reminisce, nurture, and bond.”

May says emotional eating is normal, even healthy – unless it is the primary way you cope with or avoid your feelings.

The 47-year-old retired family physician lists seven ways that emotional eating leads to overeating:

1. Food is a quick, convenient, easy way to manage your feelings (for example, stuffing them or calming them down).

2. When you’re eating for emotional reasons, you’re more likely to reach for sweets, salty snacks, and comfort foods. In other words, why you are eating affects what you eat.

3. Emotional eating is often mindless, so you barely notice what you are putting in your mouth or how full you’re getting.

4. You can eat a lot of food when you’re eating for emotional reasons. If hunger doesn’t tell you to start eating, what tells you to stop?

5. Emotional eating only gives you temporary pleasure or distraction so you have to eat again when the effects fade.

6. Food alone can’t really make you happy or less stressed so your emotional triggers come back again and again.

7. Emotional eating can lead to shame and guilt—ironically two of the most powerful emotional triggers for more overeating.
The way to break out of this pattern is to create a self-care buffer zone to decrease emotional triggers. When it happens anyway (and it will), learn to identify and handle head hunger more effectively. When you do, you’ll feel better, for longer.

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'Practice self-care'

Here are 10 tips from the good doctor to help avoid the kind of emotional eating that leads to overeating.

1. Practice Self-Care: Give yourself the gift of adequate sleep, healthy meals, regular physical activity, and unscheduled time to decompress.

2. Do what you love: What are your favorite holiday activities? Who do you want to spend time with? Which events are the most meaningful to you? Which ones could you do without this year?

3. Eat What You Love: Deprivation and guilt are powerful emotional triggers that can lead to overeating so choose foods that nourish your body and your soul.

4. Love What You Eat: Eating can be a satisfying emotional experience. Savor each bite mindfully, staying conscious of how your body feels as you eat.

5. Recognize Head Hunger: Whenever you feel like eating, first ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” Look for physical signs that you need fuel.

6. Focus: What is going on inside of you? Focus on your physical state, your thoughts, and your feelings. Identify any possible triggers for eating such as fatigue, boredom, overwhelm, or nostalgia.

7. Explore: Complete this statement: I feel _______ because _______. Peel away the layers by asking “why?” and “what else?” Sometimes “I want a cookie” means “I want comfort,” or “I want rest,” “I want to escape from this conversation,” or “I want to experience the joy I remember from my childhood.”

8. Accept: Criticizing yourself for your thoughts, feelings, and actions will keep you stuck in old patterns. Accept that your emotions, no matter how difficult or trivial they may seem, tell you something about your needs.

9. Strategize: What could you do to meet your underlying need? (If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got!)

10. Take Action: The step you take will depend on your specific need; just make sure it small, realistic, and takes you in the general direction of meeting your true needs.

Michelle May, M.D. is a reformed yo-yo dieter and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. Visit www.AmIHungry.com for more on her Mindful Eating Program.

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Visit www.edmontonsun.com/keepingfit, for my Keeping Fit newspaper column on May.

Categories: Fitness

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