*Thank you to Laura Pentoney, MA, LPC, for her contributions to this blog post. To contact Laura directly, visit her profile here.
Consistently, one of the top resolutions made on January 1 is to get healthy, and getting healthy typically includes eating better. Along with most resolutions, however, those centered on diet and eating habits are generally forgotten or abandoned by the time February rolls around. Change associated with food can be quite challenging because our relationship with food is complex, and often includes an emotional component that we don’t consider.
“Emotional eating is a form of disordered eating, taking in more food in response to negative emotions,” says Laura Pentoney, M.A. LPC, a therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. “This is not a healthy strategy for coping with difficult feelings.”
Laura explains that there is societal pressure to “be happy and positive all the time.” As children, we regularly hear messages that implore us get over our negative feelings: don’t cry, be my little man, you’re a big girl, buck up. “We don’t learn how to manage stress, anger, sadness or fear. Emotional eating is caused by an inability to cope with difficult issues and feelings. For some, food becomes the primary coping mechanism.”
At the start of a new year, emotional eaters can feel out of control. This is a time a lot of people decide to go on a cleanse, a fast or a diet. “These are extreme responses, and not a healthy way to lose weight,” Pentoney says, partly because the issues that lead to unhealthy eating are still there. “The minute you have a difficult moment, you are likely to resort to emotional eating.” That can result in feelings of guilt in addition to the initial source of stress, she notes.
This cycle is regularly reinforced in the media. The morning news shows, for example, have seemingly daily segments on food, diet and nutrition. These conversations may focus on which foods have the most calories, fat or carbohydrates, but don’t address the underlying issues that make us reach for them.
Language is another important part of developing a healthy relationship with food. Rather than referring to food as fuel, energy or even a reward, we learn to think of individual foods as “good” or “bad.” Laura explains that this is black-and-white thinking. By not allowing for a gray area, she says, one slip becomes, “I’ve ruined the whole thing.” With no acknowledgement of a middle ground, continuing to move forward with healthy choices seems impossible, and giving up entirely becomes practically inevitable.
Food is neither good nor bad, but rather must be understood in the larger context of everything one eats. Eating nothing but donuts would not be a healthy choice but not because donuts are a “bad” food; eating an occasional donut is not going to cause long-term harm (barring serious food allergies). Similarly, eating only carrots, which could be thought of as a “good” food, would also not be a healthy choice, because carrots do not contain all the nutrients humans need to function properly.
In order to stop emotional eating, one needs to not only learn healthy eating patterns and behaviors, but also address emotional issues and develop healthy coping strategies.
Pentoney recommends these techniques:
- Be with the emotion. Learn to allow yourself to feel it. Where do you experience it in your body? If the emotion could speak, what would it be saying to you?
- Identify triggers. Are there specific situations, places or times you are likely to use food to cope? Does going to your mother-in-law’s house trigger fear or anger because she reminds you of your own abusive mother? Do you feel triggered into fear as you prepare for the speech you’re going to give tomorrow?
- Practice mindfulness. Instead of rushing through your food, or eating while you are doing something else such as working at your desk or watching television, take time to savor it, appreciating the taste and texture.
- Cultivate an inner voice. Learn to reassure yourself, like a warm and wise mother, when you’re feeling distressed.
- Develop healthy coping skills for soothing yourself such as taking a bath, journaling, dancing, meditating or going for a walk.
- Learn the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
- Accept all your emotions, even the so-called negative ones.
- Go to counseling to learn about your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and how they impact your relationship to food.