Since working with so many nutrition clients and realising just how big of a problem emotional eating is for a lot of people, I have become so much more aware of marketing tactics that food companies use, and I get annoyed now when I watch food ads.
You probably won’t notice it unless you are looking for it, but next time you watch a food ad on TV, wait for the very obvious connection they put in place between the food they are advertising and an emotion. In order to create appeal, food marketers promise an emotional benefit beyond the food itself. In every food ad, they try to convey a link between food and emotions: things like comfort, excitement, belonging, even romance etc. It’s crazy.
Now of course there’s nothing wrong with food being for our enjoyment and not just survival/fuel etc. I believe that food is one of the many joys in life and should be treated as such. But problems arise when we begin to always use food as an “escape” from negative emotions or to try to distract us from our problems or feelings.
Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort as it has a (temporary) numbing, softening effect on our unwanted emotions, and takes our attention away from them. The key to ending this pattern is to not ignore your feelings but instead to invite them in, make friends with your emotions, and allow yourself to feel.
Learning to control your appetite instead of being controlled by it goes hand in hand with self-awareness, understanding our emotions and learning to just be okay with our emotions (not having to “fix” everything or make ourselves happy immediately).
Tell yourself that it's perfectly okay to feel sad, mad, scared, tired — you name it. Even moody or irritated for no good reason at all, maybe it’s a really silly stupid reason, but who cares? Be kind to your feelings. Treat your emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This even includes intense feelings like guilt, jealousy or anger. Don’t be ashamed. It’s human and perfectly normal to feel. It's never feeling an emotion that is bad, it's how we sometimes act on them that can create problems. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat or binge as an escape or to protect you from your feelings, because you are accepting of them. They are a part of who you are.
When you find yourself feeling a strong emotion, it’s important not to dismiss your feelings. Emotions can be a lot like naughty kids in need of attention. Once we validate them, we allow them to be seen and have a voice. Once we validate our emotions, we become more aware and accepting of them, and we begin to understand where they come from. It’s only when you get to a place of self awareness that you can see your emotions clearly and understand the power they may hold over us and then we can decide what to do about them.
Remember: self awareness is power; it gives us the control to choose how we are going to respond.
Part of the reason so many people exceed their calorie needs on a regular basis is confusing emotional or boredom “hunger” with an actual, real need for food. Learning how to separate the two will make weight management so much easier. You’ll be able to say “okay, I’m just tempted to eat out of boredom or emotion” rather than “I actually need to eat now, because my body needs it.” And the other times, of course you will still eat or have a drink because you are celebrating something, or just “for fun”, and that is perfectly fine as well.
But the BIG difference here is that you are in control because you are aware of your feelings and understand what is going on with them. You aren’t a slave to your emotions anymore. You can answer to them. You can tell yourself, “Okay, so I’m feeling a little moody or bitchy, or I’m sad because of such and such, and I acknowledge that, and I accept that it’s normal to feel that way.”
Once you acknowledge this your body will follow suit. And eventually you’ll find that happy balance, where sometimes you might say to yourself “you know what, it’s Friday night, I’ve had a long ass stressful week, I’m dogshit tired and I’m going to eat that treat and enjoy it”…But YOU will be in control, rather than letting the emotions and food control you. That’s the difference. And it’s actually an extremely liberating feeling.
Try it. Next time you have a strong feeling and you are tempted to go and grab food and start drowning your sorrows in that chocolate bar, try a different strategy. Go for a walk, and talk to yourself. Ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are feeling, get to the very bottom of your feelings, peel away all the layers, even the darker layers that you might be a little ashamed to admit are there. Keep digging until you get the crux of what you are feeling. Then you can decide what to do about it.
Maybe you will solve the problem, maybe you won’t, but you will start to realise how much better this strategy works. And as you build awareness and learn to recognise your feelings, you will gain more control of your emotions and more control over your eating habits too.
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