Identify the Problem
After a stress-packed day, who among us hasn’t sought solace in a pint of cookie dough ice cream at least once? “We all comfort ourselves with food to some degree,” says Dr. Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food. “It only becomes an issue when you use food as your primary source of coping—and no matter how hard you try you can’t achieve or maintain a healthy weight.” How do you know if you’re undermining yourself by emotional eating? Albers says if you regularly turn to food when you’re bored, tired, angry, stressed, sad or even happy, you may be relying on it too much.
Here are other signs to look for:
- You eat healthily all day long, only to come home and binge at night.
- You race for the nearest drive-through after a bad day at work.
- You eat past the point of satisfaction or fullness, and even then can’t stop.
- You constantly battle the bulge, never able to lose weight or keep it off.
- You often beat yourself up about how much you eat.
- You finish the whole bag of chips, cookies or crackers in one sitting.
Listen to your belly
Impostor: Brain hunger Emotional hunger can hit you like a ton of bricks. “It’s like an on/off switch,” says Albers. “Your hunger level can go from zero to 10 in seconds.” And you don’t want just anything — your craving is specific. This is when you’re likely to stare at a packed pantry or fridge and declare: “There’s nothing to eat!” When you get what you want, you may savour the first few bites, but soon you’re not tasting the food anymore. You just automatically keep eating, and then feel guilty afterwards.
Real Deal: Belly hunger “True physical hunger comes on gradually, like how you feel between breakfast and lunch,” says Albers. “It’s based on what and when you last ate, and has body cues like a growling stomach or even a headache.” You can wait a while before eating and you’re not picky — you just want something to fill you up so you can get on with your day. You tend to stop eating when you’re full and you don’t feel any guilt, because you know you’re giving your body the nourishment it needs.
Before smothering your sorrows with a plate of poutine, ask yourself, What am I feeling right now? Albers suggests coming up with three words, such as tired, frustrated, lonely, sad or worried. Then, finish this sentence for each: “I feel this way because . . .” and see what comes up. Getting in touch with your feelings allows you to cultivate awareness around why you’re eating.
Find pleasure in other places
Best-selling author Geneen Roth writes in Women, Food and God that “we don’t want to eat hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to be hot fudge sundaes.” In other words, we don’t want the tasty treat as much as we want what it represents. A hot fudge sundae might remind us of a happy childhood memory, a birthday celebration or a reward for a job well done. So when an emotional craving strikes, we’re really looking for the positive feelings that ice cream evokes. Instead of trying to recapture those feelings with food, get the warm fuzzies (without the calories) by doing something you’ve always wanted to. Sign up for singing lessons, learn to scuba dive or go see a play with your partner.
Try these tricks to feel better without food
1. Focus on other senses Got cheesecake on the brain? Refocus your attention with Albers’s 1-2-3-4-5 technique: State one scent you can smell. Name two sounds you can hear. Identify three sensations in your body (such as temperature). Identify four colours that you see. Name five things you see in front of you. Repeat until the impulse to indulge subsides.
2. Be your own masseuse “You need the calming benefits of massage in the moments when you’re struggling with emotional eating,” says Albers. Try this: While sitting at your desk or watching TV, place a tennis ball under your foot and roll your foot over the ball. “It’s very soothing and sends a message to your brain that you’re relaxing.”
3. Talk it Out Support from loved ones can make all the difference, says Albers. A 2004 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that women who suffered from binge eating were less likely to overeat on days when they received the most social support, such as visits from family and friends. So next time you feel tempted to solve your problems with a trip to the fridge, call a friend and let her know you’re struggling. You can also find support online. “It’s a great place to share your experiences and get support from people around the world,” she explains. “Plus, you can do it at 3 a.m. in your pyjamas.”
4. See the glass as half-full The better your perspective when facing life’s challenges, the less likely you are to use food to cope. Try to see the benefits and opportunities of a tough situation. For example, an argument with your spouse can bring up issues that will ultimately improve your relationship.
5. Strengthen your resolve The next time you’re faced with temptation, repeat a positive affirmation to improve your willpower. Here are a few to try:
“I’m good at tackling a challenge head-on.”
“I can wait. My craving will pass with a little patience.”
“Eating won’t resolve this problem. I can soothe myself.”
6. Be kinder to yourself “Nothing sparks stress eating more than self-judgment,” says Albers. If you slip up, try not to dwell on it. Instead, regroup and move on. “The guilt can be so overwhelming. But don’t get trapped in a tornado of negative thoughts about what you ate and what you did wrong — beating yourself up doesn’t do you any good. It just keeps you stuck in regret mode and prevents you from moving forward.”
7. Take charge “Focus on what you can control in this moment,” says Albers. “Go for a run, clean, tackle a project you’ve been putting off — do anything that will help you feel better.” A top tip: practice yoga. “Yoga teaches you the skill of being in tune with your body,” says Albers. A 2005 University of California study found that women who do yoga are more satisfied with their bodies, have greater body awareness and are less likely to develop eating issues than those who don’t.
8. Get distracted on purpose If you keep yourself busy, you’re less likely to think about food. Squeeze some bubble wrap (“very cathartic,” says Albers), do a crossword puzzle or engage in a little retail therapy — whatever it takes to stay the course.