In the past few columns, we’ve explored the topic of emotional eating by noting the differences between physical and emotional hunger, looking at our triggers, seeing what self-compassion could do for us when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions and trust ourselves not to act them out inappropriately, and recognizing that we have agency over our choices.
What are our choices?
If we struggle with emotional eating, we have several choices in how we address it:
- Crowding out
- Food swaps
- Stewarding emotional eating through primary foods
One of the principles of Integrative Nutrition® is “crowding out”—not forbidding poor-choice foods but rather adding in better-choice foods.
If you crave chocolate cake and know an apple is a better choice than a slice of that, have the apple first. If you crave soft drinks, have a glass of water before you have the soda. Etc.
The idea is that initially you might eat both, but at least you’ve put some nutrient-dense food in your system, and if you’re really mindful, you may to too full to eat the whole piece of cake; over time, the better-choice foods can raise your nutritional status to the point that your craving will be solely emotional and not due to any nutrient deficiencies.
Once you’ve tried crowding out for a time, you might try replacing the poor-choice food with a better choice that shares some of the same qualities—flavor, texture, temperature.
- A smoothie in place of a milkshake
- A handful of nuts in place of chips
Stewarding emotional eating
Once we have figured out when we are eating emotionally, identified our triggers, named and felt our emotions, and recognized our agency over our choices, we have arrived at the final stage of stewarding our emotional eating.
That’s an odd choice of words: stewarding.
Think of the words you most commonly hear used around emotional eating: manage, control, conquer, quit, beat, outsmart….
Then think about your triggers: can you really remove them all from your life?
And how about your emotions: will you ever stop feeling emotions in response to those triggers?
If you are unlikely to stop feeling emotions, then you will forever be managing, controlling, conquering, battling your emotional eating. Phew. That sounds exhausting.
“Stewarding” on the other hand means “to take loving care of that which is entrusted to us.” It’s a bit of a mind-flip—and an important one to make—to consider that emotional eating is not a problem; rather, it’s an opportunity to pay attention to what our bodies, minds, and spirits are asking of and for us.
If you are prone to emotional eating, you may always have that urge: wouldn’t it feel better to greet it with an “Oh, hello again, old friend. I see you. You show up when I’m needing something that I’m not giving myself” than an “You’re back. You’re bad. How do I kill you once and for all—again?”
In the first column of this series, I brought up a founding principle of Integrative Nutrition®—that we are nourished not only by secondary foods (the ones we put in our mouths) but also by primary foods (everything else in our lives that in their practice or absence have the potential to nourish or toxify us: relationships, careers, spiritual practices, physical activity).
Both crowding out and food swapping still carry with them the possibility of overeating, and the ultimate goal of stewarding our emotional eating is to treat the cause rather than mask the symptoms.
There are two important point to make around primary foods used to steward emotional eating:
- Like our secondary food choices, they are bio-individual: a workout that rids one person of stress may feel like punishment to another; sitting through a church service might make one person antsy and another one calm; Learn to get in touch with your intuition about what is right for you right now, and know that it might vary over time. Then be confident about following your own path.
- Among the primary food choices, there must be some that we can feed ourselves without relying on others. It’s fine to rely on someone else to be there for a phone call, a text, or a hug—and it’s vital to know that there will be times you will be left to your own devices. Don’t let yourself be caught short when a bout of emotional eating rears its head.
What do you really want?
The most difficult exercise is ahead, and if you’ve been following along with the series and trying to address what might be emotional/stress eating, here are your action steps/assignments so far:
- Determine whether your hunger is physical or emotional
- Identify the trigger of your emotional hunger
- Name your emotion—and allow yourself to feel it
- Find self-empowerment in recognizing that you have choices, whether you make the better one or not—awareness is always the first step!
The next step is to give yourself what it is your body/mind/spirit really wants of and for you.
How do you know what that is? Let’s go back to a point before you started using food to soothe yourself, fill a void, or have some control over the chaos in your life. And yes, you may have to go back as far as childhood for this exercise!
When you experience emotional hunger, you’ve identified your trigger, and named your emotion, think back to the first time you recall experiencing that emotion:
- If you’re feeling scared, what frightened you as a child?
- If you’re feeling lonely, when did you first feel that way?
- If you’re feeling uncertain, when did things first feel out of control?
Then ask that former version of you, “What do you really want?”
Before a child is taught to soothe with food, it would never enter her mind to answer that question with “ice cream,” “chips,” or “soda.” The answer would have been: a hug, someone to listen to me and tell me it will be alright, someone to notice me.
In short, it would have been a loving adult to make things feel better.
You’re now an adult, and it is up to you to make yourself feel better.
The key is to remember that you are going to act as a loving adult even if that’s not what you experienced as a child/adolescent.
- If you want a hug, try gently hugging yourself or rubbing your arms and/or legs or getting a massage.
- If you want someone to listen, talk to yourself and try not to respond with judgment.
- If you’re feeling unnoticed, pay yourself some attention in your preferred love language, whether it’s a gift or some quality time or an act of service or kind words.
That’s not an easy exercise, and it’s very worthwhile if you are serious about stewarding your emotional eating—not once and for all but gently, again and again. And with much more success!
Want a little more support with your emotional eating? I’m offering my two-month Stewarding Emotional Eating program in November—and it will take you through the holidays, one of our biggest triggers as emotional eaters!
WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach and employee wellness consultant, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, and COO of a busy family of four spread across the country—and the globe. Liza lives in an empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.