Experts believe that up to 75% of overeating may be due to reasons other than physical hunger. If you want to improve your relationship with food, learn to identify and control emotional eating. This is especially important for weight loss surgery (WLS) patients because you can seriously injure yourself by overeating, or at least derail your hard-fought progress in building a stronger and healthier body.
How to Recognize the Signs of Emotional Eating
- Understand how emotional eating works. Emotional eating occurs when you use food to manage your feelings, rather than to satisfy your hunger. This can trigger guilt and create a cycle where you eat because you feel bad and feel bad because you eat. Once you’ve undergone WLS, you have to change the way in which you relate to food – “self-medicating” to relieve stress or negative feelings must cease to be a part of your coping mechanism.Positive feelings can also play a role if you associate food with celebrating, spending time with friends, family and loved ones, or even with advancing in your career (business lunch, anyone?). Find ways to generate those positive feelings and support good relationships without incorporating food as the major motivation.
- Keep a balanced perspective. It’s okay to take pleasure in food and enjoy sharing it with others. Concerns arise only when emotional eating interferes with your health and well being – or when food becomes a stumbling block.
- Ask yourself if you feel out of control. You may have lost control of your eating habits if you want to make healthier choices but keep backsliding. Be honest with yourself if you resolve to have yogurt for breakfast but wind up stopping off for a bacon sandwich on the way to work. Similarly, avoiding healthier, bulkier foods in favor of those that “slide” easier will serve you much better in the long run.
- Notice your cravings. A strong desire for specific dishes is a common symptom of emotional eating. If you’re actually hungry, everything on the menu is likely to sound appealing. When you’re depressed over a recent breakup, ice cream may be the only thing you want to order.
- Evaluate your hunger levels. Another danger sign is eating when you already feel full – denying the physical signal your body is sending. Slow down and decide if you really need another helping of mashed potatoes, or if it’s something else you are truly wanting – a sense of connection, a shared experience?
- Consider your family history. The way you eat may be grounded in patterns that started in childhood. Maybe you were rewarded with a homemade cake when you got good grades, or you’ve grown up like I did, thinking that the person who got the most food was the one that was loved the most.
Break Old Patterns and Create a Healthier Relationship With Food
- Keep a journal – physical or electronic. It’s easier to spot patterns when you record when and why you eat in some way. You may notice that you snack on potato chips when you’re bored, even though you’ve just eaten a full meal.
- Substitute healthy foods. Cravings can be used to benefit you if you reach for nutritious alternatives. Homemade pita triangles dipped in olive oil can replace French fries with ketchup. Indulge in fresh fruit when you want dessert, and research healthy replacements for favorite snacks.
- Control portion sizes. Eliminating all your favorite treats can cause a backlash from deprivation. See if a sliver of pie makes you just as happy as a big slice and savor every bite – make it a memorable experience with fine china, crystal, a healthy beverage and your favorite music.
- Seek distractions. Engage in productive activities that will take your mind off your stomach. Go for a walk, read a book, or do some housework – take just 15 minutes to do something different and see if you can regain control instead of giving in to a craving.
- Develop positive coping techniques. Comfort foods deliver only short-term relief. Find more effective methods for managing daily stress, such as meditation, music or physical exercise. Make these techniques quick and easy to implement and review them often to keep them at the top of your mind.
- Avoid temptation. If you find your favorite cookies to be too irresistible, banish them from your pantry. Choose restaurants that specialize in healthier options if you have trouble declining your old, unhealthy favorites.
- Get adequate sleep. Being chronically tired makes you more vulnerable to overeating. Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night – and be intentional about changing your schedule to achieve this. Take a warm bath before bed to raise your body temperature if you have trouble falling asleep.
- Reward your good behavior. Reinforce the positive changes you make in your behavior. Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based) and reward yourself when you attain them. Buy yourself something special or consider “stacking” the accomplishments toward a bigger reward.
- Seek professional help. If you need more help to change the way you eat, talk with an expert. Utilizing a coach who has “been there, done that” and has first-hand knowledge of what you’re going through can help to clarify underlying issues you need to address. The nutritionist or dietician who works with your bariatric surgeon can advise you on a eating plan that will work with your individual lifestyle and help you adjust the plan as needed.
Liberate yourself from emotional eating so you can protect your health and enjoy your food more. These methods will help put you back in control and help you reach your goal of a healthier lifestyle!