Let’s be real, getting an effective plan is crucial, and highly reinforcing to see results, but the most common thing that I hear when people talk about their weight journey is, “I am an emotional eater.” What does this mean? Why do so many of us do it? Most importantly, what can we do about it?
First of all, let’s be clear about what emotional eating is NOT. It is not a “knowledge gap.” The solution is not “learning how to eat.” In a nutshell, research shows that emotional eating is about using food to avoid confronting uncomfortable emotions. Therefore, the approach is to identify the trigger and develop an alternative coping mechanism. This can be simple on the surface but you can “drill down” and reach a goldmine of resources if you invest in the process that can spill over into all sorts of niches. Let’s take a look.
In this graphic, you can see how a person can get trapped in a cycle of emotional eating. This cycle looks somewhat like an addiction cycle, in which there is temporary relief of stress by a substance, then negative feelings that follow, like withdrawal. If you have emotional eating impacting your health, I recommend a 5 step approach to reducing its negative impact on your physical and psychological well-being:
Step 1: Practice Identifying Triggers
Identifying and putting names to emotions takes an openness and emotional intelligence that is not always taught or nurtured in our society and takes practice and self-awareness. It may be that we are used to thinking we should always be happy or not be comfortable feeling sad, angry, tired, lonely, or regretful. The reasons may be complex and related to our upbringing, our current or past interpersonal relationships (with others) or intrapersonal relationships (internal self talk). This may be why there is a higher prevalence of a history of abuse, depression and anxiety in persons with overweight/obesity. Confronting one’s emotions can be scary, so seek support and professional assistance if needed. Remember, mental health and psychological well-being always come first and if anyone ever feels they may be a risk to themself, the National Suicide Hotline phone number is 800-273-8255. Below is an image showing what you may really be hungry for when you eat for emotional reasons:
Step 2: Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is, simply put, “pausing to consider other options.” Emotional eating tends to happen so fast, it is like a spinal cord reflex, and before a person even know it, it seems, they have eaten that sleeve of cookies and pint of ice cream and the guilt, shame and regret start to set in and the cycle is perpetuated. So, the next step is simply to slow things down to allow your frontal cortex to get involved rather than just your hippocampus in deciding what to do next. Then, instead of things seeming to happen to you and you feeling passive, you can take back some control and put yourself in the driver’s seat. There has been research on what can be effective for a neurologic reset in similar settings, and wringing your hands may give you the physical feedback needed to press the “pause” button.
Step 3: Practice Alternative Coping Mechanisms
Once you have identified your true need and slowed things down and switched to your cognitive part of your brain to give yourself some time to make a different decision, NOW you are in a position to “fix” the problem. If you skip steps 1 and 2, you have “put the cart before the horse”. Remember, you can’t crawl before you walk. The best alternative actions are based on the underlying need and come from inside of you. They are the most successful when you design your own, because they will be meaningful to you. They are best strategized and planned before you are “in the moment,” because we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan. Having one or two “go-to” things tends to work best. Keep it simple and easy. Some things that work for people are to keep some headphones and a playlist, or to go for a walk or remove themselves from the situation if they can.
Step 4: Track Your System
Once you start the above approach, like with any program, you should track your results and “tweak” your strategies. You won’t get it right the first time, and you won’t get it right every time. In those cases, give yourself grace and just get back on your program. Do not overly restrict to “make up” for any emotional eating. This restriction cycle tends to perpetuate and repeat the cycle. Get right back on your usual program. As you practice and track things, you will learn to be pro-active instead of reactive. You will recognize patterns that have led to emotional eating in the past and take action beforehand to care for yourself so that you will never get to that point. This will eliminate so much distress that it is the Holy Graille. After you have successfully gone through the three steps above more and more times, it will become easier and faster and more natural. This will build your confidence and you will feel even more in control.
Color My Day
In the Rainier Medical program, we use an app that has a feature called “Color My Day” that helps track patterns and identify triggers. Each person gets an individual username and password and profile in this HIPAA compliant app with a dashboard that I can view and track. Each day, the goal is to take 9 seconds to answer 5 questions with a green, yellow, or red color to answer how the day went as far as sleep, stress, activity, and the program went. This is displayed on a calendar in a visual format. This is helpful because many people note that sleep, stress, and activity are triggers that correlate with overall well-being. When the days are displayed on a calendar, it helps to see the whole month and see if weekends are challenges or a certain busy week was a challenge, etc.
In this visual image of my January, you can see that by Friday, I am toast! You can also see that the week of January 18th, I overdid it! I did not respect my work/life balance! This can help me prepare better next time.
Step 5: Celebrate Your Victories!
This is the most important step! The human spirit is indomitable and it is within you! One of the major reasons I felt drawn to medicine was the privilege of taking a first row seat to witness the resilience of humanity when it is stripped down to the essence of life and death. I am inspired and learn something daily from each and every one of you. Remember, the chance of you being born was 1 in 400 trillion. Trust me, you may not always feel like it, but you are all that you need.
Take Back Your Health. Let me know if I can help.
Valerie Sutherland, MD