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Eating to Feel

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Eating to Feel

Not long ago, a friend confided that her daughter was having weight problems because of her tendency to "binge eat when experiencing stress, sadness, or just plain boredom.

Not long ago, a friend confided that her daughter was having weight problems because of her tendency to “binge eat” when experiencing stress, sadness, or just plain boredom. Her concern was evident, but she felt unsure about how to help her daughter out of this unhealthy relationship with eating.

A Common Practice

Although we all have times when we console our egos or hurt emotions with a tub of ice cream or a bag of chips, emotional eating involves deeper connections with food. Similar to the way others use alcohol or cigarettes, emotional eaters use food as a way of dealing with various feelings, including anger, sadness, and loneliness. Rarely talked about due to social stigma, emotional eating occurs in countless households across North America.

One high profile example of this is Oprah Winfrey, who speaks publicly about her emotional struggle and relationship with food. As a young girl, Oprah turned to food as a substitute for the love and attention missing from her life. Until the root cause, or the “why,” behind her eating was identified and dealt with, Oprah reported continual eating binges and yo-yo dieting.

A Harmful Cycle

The relationship we have with food is incredibly strong and can often seem too overwhelming to change. To make matters even more complicated, the brain’s feedback mechanism associated with eating also plays a role in the choices we make.

For instance, emotional eaters often binge on sugary snacks or comforting carbohydrates to satisfy their need to eat. Without realizing it, people eat these foods because they release serotonin, the “feel good chemical.” Foods such as cookies, doughnuts, bread, and pasta give us a temporary high or rush. Unfortunately, eating too many refined sweets or carbohydrates will create more cravings, making the urge to eat even stronger.

Many emotional eaters also report falling into a vicious cycle of binge eating followed by a state of despair or sadness. It is as though their overconsumption of food sabotages anything positive from occurring in their life and acts as a constant roadblock to personal improvement.

Luckily, as with any learned behaviour, identifying the cause of emotional eating and instituting specific coping strategies allows us to create lifelong healthy relationships with food. To begin this process, start by implementing the following steps.

Keep healthy foods on hand. Do not keep unhealthy munchies lurking in your kitchen cupboards or fridge. When an emotional situation arises that challenges you (as they always seem to do), those chocolate chip cookies or ice cream will be far too tempting. If you feel yourself sliding into a “food binge,” munch on some sliced cucumbers or mini carrots.

Know your stomach. Practice getting in tune with your hunger signal and eating until you are satisfied–not stuffed.

Eat as slowly as you can. It takes the brain approximately 20 minutes to register the “full” signal from the stomach’s stretch receptors. Sit down, take breaths between bites, and use a knife and fork.

Institute a replacement behaviour for your eating. You cannot eliminate one long-term behaviour without substituting something else, whether it is working out, drinking water or herbal tea, or brushing your teeth.

Be kind to yourself. Emotional connections with food are extremely powerful and can take a long time to conquer. If you fall off the “health wagon” and overeat or eat to soothe an emotional pain, don’t beat yourself up.

Identify your cues. There are certain “triggers” that typically cause you to binge. Whether it is speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone or arguing with your boyfriend or girlfriend, identify the cue and then substitute it with your replacement behaviour.

Seek help. There are several qualified therapists who have dedicated their counselling services to helping emotional eaters. Discovering why you emotionally eat is critical to resolving the behaviour.

As I assured my friend, her daughter’s emotional eating is not a life sentence. By implementing the above steps and looking to others for help and counselling, eating can and will be an enjoyable part of everybody’s life.

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