When you think of emotional eating, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? In the traditional sense, many people think it occurs when they’re bored, sad, happy, lonely etc. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an emotional eater, I encourage you to keep reading as it can apply not only to how you show up around food but can also come up with shopping, drinking, exercising, etc.
When I was battling food I didn’t think of myself as an emotional eater but after exploring my relationship with food, I learned there is so much more to emotional eating than we think. For instance, we often think it occurs during a specific meal or snack in a day if we aren’t able to “control” ourselves and our willpower in the moment. This is one scenario AND it could be more frequent and even subconscious.
When I was going through my weightloss journey, for years I knew what I was supposed to be eating and was able to stay disciplined around food most of the time and other times I’d fall off track. When I fell off track I would beat myself up for not being consistent and would tell myself I would start again tomorrow. Sometimes I was able to get back on the wagon the next day but other times it would take me a week, a month or multiple months. The one thing that remained consistent through all of this was that I was consumed by the thought of food.
What I finally discovered was that I wasn’t lacking willpower, but rather, all of this was happening because of small emotional triggers that kept popping up without my awareness. When these triggers showed up, there were a few common reactions I would have when faced with a food that sounded good but wasn’t necessarily in alignment with my healthy eating goals. All of these seemed innocent at the moment but the aftermath wasn’t pleasant! At the time I would tell myself:
- “Screw it! I’m just going to eat this [fill in the blank]”
- “I deserve it!” (after a long, hard day or after being “good” for a while)
- “Who cares? I’ll just eat this. It’s not a big deal.”
The aftermath that ensued consisted of a lot of negative self-talk and beating myself up for not being able to stick with what I knew I “should” be eating. There was a lot of guilt and shame baked into the food choices.
I learned the main themes that typically led to eating out of alignment with my goals were:
- A new level of uncertainty in my life
- Feeling vulnerable
- Any time I felt misunderstood
- Feeling emotionally or physically depleted
At the time, because I was in automatic pilot I had no idea any of this was happening beneath the surface. When you really think about it, those are all emotional situations and triggers that can lead to food feeling more powerful and rewarding in the moment because the food was a way to relieve pressure that had been building.
The themes that affected me and my patterns with food are just a few that can pop up. Each person is unique and can be affected by a variety of emotional triggers. Some of the most common ones I’ve seen for many of my clients are when they feel:
- Lonely or isolated
When any of these triggers arise it can be challenging to stick to what you know works and can feel like you’re lacking willpower or discipline as a result.
And it’s not just around food! You might start mindlessly shopping on your phone, coming up with reasons why you can’t make it to the gym, giving yourself permission to eat something out of alignment with your goals, or push off starting a healthy habit that will help you work towards reaching your overall wellness goals.
The next time you feel like you’re lacking willpower or are struggling to stay on track, take a moment to self-reflect and see if the below symptoms have popped up. If so, check in as to whether any of the above emotional triggers may be present. (Note: the trigger likely would have happened within 24-hours)
- Consumed by the thought of food
- Eating and it doesn’t make sense
- Waiting to eat until it’s too late
- Having a hard time getting back on track despite knowing what you “should” do
- Procrastinating to get started with something on your to-do list
The first step to help experience freedom and rewarding experiences is to identify the trigger and make the connection between underlying emotions and mental food gymnastics or behaviors out of alignment with your goals. When you start to become more aware and able to label your emotions, you can be on your way to freedom from emotional eating.
Since this can be challenging to do you on your own, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have.
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