Our culture has changed in that we no longer eat to live but rather live to eat. Food is no longer thought of as essential to sustain life as God intended it, but rather has become an answer to boredom, stress, anger, depression, loneliness, anxiety, reward, and pleasure. What triggers you to eat? If your answer is not “Because I’m hungry” you may be eating in response to an emotion. Unfortunately, we don’t always eat when we feel actual physical hunger. If that were the case our weight problems would be significantly less. Hunger is, however, the only real reason to eat.

hqdefaultWe live in the land of plenty so do we even know what true hunger feels like? Generally, you will feel a slight sensation for hunger approximately 3-4 hours after you eat. A good way to track if you are eating out of emotion is to ask yourself, “Has it been 3-4 hours since I last ate?” If not, it could be an emotion creeping up on you. We need to find non-edible things to do to address our emotions. If you are bored, is that bag of chips really going to excite your life so much that you are not still bored when it is gone? When stressed at work is that candy bar really going to extend the deadline?

The trap with emotional eating is that often we start out with one emotion like boredom and then end up adding another one after the splurge. The end result is that you are still bored but now you are also mad that you ate it. We often then consider the day a total wash and our mentality is to just wait until tomorrow. Don’t give up. Start immediately. The chances of one candy bar, an extra donut or even that row of cookies you just inhaled showing up on the scale immediately are unlikely. Remember you have to eat 3500 extra calories to gain even one pound. What can show up on the scale is several days and weeks of that, “I’ll just wait…”attitude.

The first thing to do to address emotional eating is to know that you are doing it. Keep a food and activity journal that has columns that say “mood”, “time”, “place”, and “who is around”. This is very helpful. Once you’ve identified it, the next step is having a non-edible plan to address whatever emotion it is. Make a list of non-edible things you can do that take 5-10 minutes and require the use of your hands. Often, engaging in these short activities clears our mind and takes the focus off of food. The goal is to take the association with food away and therefore make an association with something else. So, now when you are bored, you don’t associate it with food, you associate it with a brisk walk or a call to a friend.

Try some of these emotion-busters:
  • Walk down the street 3 houses and back
  • Do your nails, or do someone else’s nails
  • Brush your teeth, floss, and use mouthwash
  • Take a bath
  • Jog in place for 5 minutes
  • Make the beds
  • Clean out one drawer
  • Walk a few laps around the outside of your house
  • Vacuum whether it needs it or not
  • Do a puzzle
  • Read one chapter in a good book
  • Groom the dog
  • Dance to one good song
  • Call a friend
  • Journal
  • Meditate or pray
  • Read the Bible; try 5 Psalms and 5 Proverbs
  • Sweep the garage
  • Leave the kitchen completely and go to another room

When it comes to emotional eating you need a plan. Your goal is to think of “non-edible” things you can do to address the emotion at hand. Depending on your age, you may have an emotion that has an association with food that started as a child. Those are the tough ones to break because we have had the advantage of practicing it over the course of many years. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t break it all the time. I have noticed in my own life that I haven’t completely been able to break all of them but I have noticed that they occur less often. That is progress!

Written By: Erin Kennedy, MS, Exercise Physiologist

Erin Kennedy (MS, Exercise Physiologist) is the director of the Center for Healthy Lifestyles in Central Illinois. She works closely with specialty physicians to promote community awareness on various health topics. Her special interests include working with those who have heart disease, diabetes, and weight management concerns. Erin has been published in several trade magazines and journals and is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. In 2014, Erin was honored by the YWCA of McLean County with the Women of Distinction – Professions Award.

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