3 Actions For Emotional Eaters

The holidays are a doozy, no? 

I'm still getting emails from people telling me they are having a tough time “recovering”: they are still in holiday eating mode, and they’re feeling they need to cleanse themselves. There’s a lot of emotion involved, and the knee-jerk reaction is to do something extreme to “get back on track”.

What’s going on here?

I started to pick it apart a little bit in my Fueled+Fit Facebook group this week, and wanted to share some thoughts with you in case you’re experiencing something similar. 

In my practice - and in my life - I see two things regularly happening:

1. We mentally attach labels to food: bad/good, sinful/moral, blameworthy/righteous, unworthy/worthy

2. We tend to view our food choices as an extension of ourselves.

When we attach the bad/good language to food and then eat the food, we feel as though we take on those qualities. Here's an overly simplified example: I ate a cookie. Cookies are bad. I am bad.

(This is why for so many of us, eating goes WAY beyond the food.)

Enter the diet. Often, people turn to diets or cleanses or even workouts in order to purge themselves of their food sins...it's a form of repentance for not only doing something you’ve deemed bad, BUT for feeling like you are bad for doing it.

I know some people would argue that this isn't true for them…that they just need something to help them get "back on track". And this may be the case for some people. But not for 99% of people I see or speak with.

If our food choices were truly devoid of emotion, if we ate without feeling the weight of the shoulder angel/devil, we would say: "Wow, I ate a lot of different foods during the holidays. I don't feel my personal best right now. I'm going to make some smarter choices for my body starting now." And that would be it. There wouldn't be any waffling back and forth between what we think we SHOULD be doing, and what we're actually doing. We also wouldn't be hung up on all the food we had eaten during the holidays. It would just be a done deal, not something hanging over our conscience. It also wouldn’t happen every. single. year. Several times a year, even.

Our self-concept is one of the hardest things to alter, despite how much we want to change. So it’s imperative to not only shift away from viewing food choices as bad/good…but ALSO, we must dissociate our food choices from ourselves.

We must let our food choices be like any other choices we make throughout the day: I wore my blue sweater to work today. Okay. End of discussion. No guilt, no shame, no blame, no weirdness.

There isn't a switch we can turn on or off to make it happen (at least I haven't found it yet!), but if we give ourselves time, patience, and some tools, we can learn to disrupt that behavior.

In my quest to breakup with a decade-old eating disorder, these 3 actions were paramount in healing my relationship with food.

 

Become aware.

It all starts with awareness. I already wrote a blog with some of my thoughts on awareness and emotional eating. Here are some more ideas:

Pay attention to how you tend to view food. Do you attach labels? Do you internalize other people’s beliefs about food or dieting or bodies? Before you can challenge it and change it, you must be aware of it. Try to drop any judgments you have around your thoughts about food, and simply be aware of them. Recognize when emotion is tied up in your food choices. In order to do this, though, you must…

 

Quit dieting.

Scary, I know. Especially when we’ve been doing it most of our lives! 

Traditional diets allow you to lose weight quickly. Sweet. But emphasis is often on calorie restriction, ignoring hunger cues, and tricking your body out of cravings.

If you are an emotional eater, this is bad news. 

You can’t outsmart your internal cues. Deprivation does’t “fix” the underlying issues. You can’t just diet harder or work out more to make it all go away. When emotion is driving the eating, YOU HAVE TO ADDRESS THE EMOTION.

Yet this is not what we hear. 

We have health experts and coaches and fitness leaders reinforcing the restriction model. I had a recent client who had been dealing with intense food cravings. All she kept hearing was “don’t eat it - you have to stay away from that food - just put that food down - you have to eat less”. I was the first person to root around and try to figure out WHY she was getting cravings in the first place.

This isn’t a popular model. We don’t hear it because this isn’t what we WANT to hear. Following a diet and exercise plan is easy. Dealing with deep-seated emotion is not.

It’s not sexy. It doesn’t give you a 6 pack in 3 weeks. So time and again, we fall back to the “easy” way out, and further disconnect ourselves from our true hunger/needs. In order to change this habit, we must…

 

Learn something different.

Unfortunately, the traditional diet model does not provide the format to re-learn habits. And habits? They’re kind of everything. Habits make up roughly 40% of our day. So if we change our habits, we change the scope of our lives. 

So, when dieting, we’re usually sticking with our old habits…and then we get upset when they don’t work. The tendency for most of us is to feel derailed after we make a choice deemed "unworthy"...and then we feel unworthy…and then we throw in the towel. 

But the crazy thing is is that eventually we jump back on the wagon! And we try to grin and bear our way through it…knowing full well that this didn’t work the last time, but hanging onto hope that it will this time. We’re stuck in the hamster wheel, doing the same old thing over and over and over. 

If you’re looking for change, then at some point you have to say enough is enough. You have to learn something new. (And I don’t mean a new diet.)

Learn how to reconnect to your hunger. Stop fearing it. It isn’t something to be ignored. 

Learn how to listen to what your body is saying. WHY are you hungry? WHY are you craving certain foods? WHAT do you need? 

Learn to practice awareness (refer back to #1 - see how this is all one big interconnected loop?).

Learn to acknowledge that YOU are more than your food choices, you are more than your diets, you are more than your weight, you are more than your body.

 

How do we do this? Check out some of these practices that have worked well for my clients and myself:

 

Meditation

I know you think you can't meditate, but anything new takes time to learn. If my daughter tried walking once and said "nah, I can't do it", she'd be in pretty rough shape (so would my back). Meditation is extraordinarily helpful in becoming more aware of our food choices, how food makes us feel, how we feel about food, how we feel about ourselves. It is an emotional eater's best friend, and I don't know where I would be without it.

Check out these short and simple guided meditations

 

Journaling

Journaling after meditation is some powerful stuff. You can choose to free-write, or try this exercise that I like. 

Some other questions to journal about:

What does it feel like to be in my body right now?

What is my body asking for?

Do I feel deserving of nourishment?

 

Yoga

The thing many people don't understand about yoga is that there are many different styles. Within each style, there are many different teachers. My point is...don't try yoga once and then write it off. Go back. Keep going back. Try different classes, try different styles, try different studios, try different teachers. It's okay to be a yoga whore, especially in the beginning. Test the waters, spread the love, figure out what works for you best. What do you enjoy? What connects you to your body? What makes you feel at home in your body?

Although I am a vinyasa yoga teacher, I often practice Bikram and Kundalini styles, depending on what my body is asking for. 

The combination of body movement and focus on breath is what allowed me to truly feel connected to myself and comfortable in my own skin. No matter what type you do, YOGA WORKS.