Many of my clients let me know that they are ‘emotional eaters’.
They’ll confide in me, telling me that they eat to comfort themselves during stressful times in their life and that they feel like they can’t ‘control’ themselves around food. Shame, guilt and fear are often spread across their face.
Chances are if you are reading this you have felt this way too.
But you know what?
It’s ok. It’s all ok. You’re doing your best. We all are.
Emotional eating is nothing to feel guilty about, it doesn’t make you a bad person and you are certainly not alone in your experience.
How to manage emotional eating
The first thing we need to recognise is that emotional eating serves a purpose.
As humans we use the coping mechanisms we have available to us. If using food to soothe your emotions is the only one you have, of course you are going to use it.
Working with a Health At Every Size (R) informed psychologist or counsellor, or talking to someone you trust can be a great way to help you to come up with some additional ways to cope with feelings that may trigger your emotional eating.
In conjunction with those extra coping skills, these 4 key strategies can be helpful.
1. Start with self compassion
Fostering compassion for yourself can be really hard, particularly if you’ve struggled with low self esteem or gone round and round the diet cycle for many years. Although it’s difficult, it can be a great first step in managing and learning from emotional eating.
Notice negative self talk, like ‘I’m so bad for eating all that food’. Over time (and with lots of practice!) you can begin to shift your thinking. This might then sound something like ‘Oh, it’s no wonder I ate so much, considering I’m dealing with a lot at the moment and I’m still figuring out extra ways to cope.’ You might also like to work on self compassion further with your psychologist.
2. Tune in
From a very early age we’re taught that our bodies are unruly entities that can’t possibly be trusted. Listening your body (and yourself!) in terms of what you need in the moment allows that trust to be rebuilt and can help you manage emotional eating.
When faced with situations where you would usually eat emotionally, try to pause, tune in and ask yourself ‘how do I feel and what do I need right now?’. You may find that what you need is actually food. That’s ok! But in taking the time to pause, you give yourself the time to confirm that. Other times you may find that you need social connection, sleep, movement, to have that difficult conversation or something else that might meet your needs.
3. Resist the urge to limit your food intake
People often believe that restricting their food will allow them to manage emotional eating. This is understandable considering the messages we receive on a daily basis from our very fatphobic, diet-obsessed culture.
However: one of the biggest predictors of eating too much is eating too little.
As well as it being a great way to look after yourself and keep you well nourished, listening to your hunger, fullness and satiety signals throughout the day can help you manage emotional eating. Eating regularly ensures that your emotions aren’t affected by getting too hungry, as well as reducing the risk of that “out of control” feeling around food that can sometimes come up when we’re famished and then presented with food.
Slowing down with your eating or even trying mindful eating throughout the day can also be helpful here.
4. Practice self care
Often people assume that practicing self care means that you have to have massages, bubble baths and manicures every day. If that’s what makes you feel good, by all means continue! But it’s the simpler every day things that can make dealing with life and managing any triggering situations that little bit easier.
For some people self care might look like getting enough sleep, eating regularly, doing a form of movement they enjoy, drinking enough water, spending time with friends and family... The list is endless and it really depends on what makes you feel good and what you feel will fulfill the need you are feeling in the moment.
Ditching the diet cycle is really hard work, and can feel damn near impossible when managing emotional eating at the same time. Remember: you are not alone in this and there are lots of resources to help when you are ready.
The Butterfly Foundation 1800 046 698
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
HAES Australia - psychologists and counsellors
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