If you eat when lonely, bored, stressed, depressed, anxious, upset, or any other feeling besides hunger, this post is for you.
The cycle of emotional eating begins when we turn to food for stress-relief, comfort, or companionship instead of looking at food as fuel for our bodies to perform at their peak.
Food can provide a break in routine and a temporary moment of pleasure, but the moment is fleeting. The aftermath of emotional eating is guilt, which prompts us to seek soothing and leads back to food for comfort. The initial feelings that triggered the emotional eating remained unaddressed and so they resurface, now coupled with disappointment, hopelessness and powerlessness. Unless we are proactive about implementing strategies to break the cycle of emotional eating and develop healthier coping mechanisms, it will continue.
Here are 7 strategies to break the cycle and find freedom from emotional eating:
Understand that your past does not determine your present or your future.
There is a reason why the initial steps in every 12-step recovery program, including Food Addicts Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, are for the individual to admit that they are unable to overcome their addiction on their own, to believe that God can help them regain control over their habits, and to make a decision to turn their will and their life over to God (1).
With God’s help, people can and do change. But you can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one. Revisit your history of emotional eating long enough to learn from it and understand why it happened, but not long enough to stay stuck there. Realize what has worked and what hasn’t, let go of your past mistakes and feeling bad about yourself, and commit to starting a new chapter with healthier habits.
Understand your triggers.
What situations and emotions drive you to eat? Once you can identify what you are feeling and what you need in those moments, you become able to replace eating with a different reward that will provide the peace, comfort, companionship, or break in routine that you are actually craving. Rely on God’s strength to help you to replace, rather than refuse, unhealthy food cravings with a healthier alternative. When feeling stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, bored, or upset, mindfully acknowledge and address your feelings rather than try to suppress them. Allow your emotions to become tools for positive transformation (i.e. emotional freedom) rather than drive you to poor eating habits.
Practice the pause.
Before you raid the pantry or fridge, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “Am I actually hungry?” If the answer is yes, strive to eat nutrient dense foods that will satisfy your hunger, remembering to balance complex carbohydrates with lean proteins to stabilize your blood sugar, energy levels, and mood. If you are unsure, drink a glass of water (oftentimes we mistake thirst for hunger) and wait 10-15 minutes to see if the hunger persists. If the answer is no, get involved in a different activity (see 52 Ways to Find Peace without Food Printable). One way to help develop awareness is to keep a Food Log where you record what you eat, when you eat, and what you are feeling in those moments as you eat. Click HERE to download an example.
Listen to your body.
With all the diets out there – Paleo, Vegan, Low-Carb, etc. – knowing what to eat, how much to eat, and how often to eat can be overwhelming. So, let me simplify it for you…
The best diet to follow is the one that you can stick with long-term. It doesn’t involve cutting out entire food groups (your body NEEDS carbs), counting every calorie that you put into your mouth, or depriving yourself of all the foods you love. The key to creating sustainable change is to focus less on dieting and more on eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with a few of the foods we crave in moderation. (Click HERE for more information on conquering unhealthy food cravings.)
It is important to listen to your body and eat in a way that works for you, not follow what someone else is doing. Remember that there are no “forbidden foods,” but while all foods are permissible, not all foods are beneficial (1 Cor 10:23). Take note of how certain foods make you feel after you eat them. If you feel guilty, lethargic, nauseous, or defeated afterwards, skip it. Discover how to sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term gain, resist the temptation to turn to food for instant gratification (look at it as a lesson in patience and self-control), and view food as fuel for your body (see 10 Tips for Mindful Eating Handout). If you can enjoy an occasional treat and feel good about it, then do it! The key to turning healthy habits into a lifestyle change is to practice mindfulness and moderation.
Just as we must be aware of what we are thinking, we must also be aware of what we are doing. Avoid eating in front of the TV, computer, or other distractions that inhibit your awareness for how much – or even what – you are eating. Eat slowly and savor each bite, taking note of the flavor and textures of your food. Stop when you are satisfied, not “full.” On a hunger scale of 1-10, where 1 is starving and 10 is “Thanksgiving Dinner full,” you should be around a 6 when you stop eating because it takes your brain about 20 minutes to realize that your stomach is full. Stopping before you feel full is one of the best ways to avoid overeating. (For additional tips on Mindful Eating, download your FREE printable from my Subscribers Page. If you’re not already a subscriber, click HERE.)
Say “no” to self-sabotage and say “yes” to celebrating your successes!
The battle really is in your mind! As you start to make healthy choices, thoughts like, “I deserve a treat,” and “Just one little bite won’t do any damage,” will start to creep into your head. You do deserve to be rewarded, but don’t do it by reverting back to unhealthy eating habits! Doing so is analogous to a recovering alcoholic rewarding himself for a month of being clean with a drink.
Find different ways to reward yourself – get a massage, meet a friend for a walk, go to a concert, sign up for a fun run, plan a vacation, or go out to eat and delight in the fact that you can order something healthy off the menu and not feel deprived (see 52 Ways to Find Peace without Food Printable)! Focus on what you are gaining – improved health, more energy, more confidence, freedom from your dependence on food, a closer relationship with God and others – instead of what you are giving up. The things you are giving up aren’t really the things worth living for, but the new habits you’re putting into place will help ensure that you are around for the things worth living for! When you find yourself saying, “One __ won’t hurt,” instead ask, “Will it help? Will it move me forward? Or will I be taking a step back?” Challenge yourself to make the choice that will initiate the change you desire.
Commit your plans to the Lord.
So often we have it backwards – we start down a path and then ask God for help when we lose our footing. Before we begin any new endeavor, we must examine our motives behind it. Then, before we begin and throughout our journey – day by day and moment by moment – we must lift our choices up to Him in prayer and commit our plans to Him.
Proverbs 16:3 states, “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.” Start your day by asking God to help you make choices that honor and glorify Him, care for your body as His masterpiece and a temple of the Holy Spirit, and control your body by purifying it of food, activities, and information (e.g. media), that are not beneficial. The solution to breaking the cycle of bad habits is to commit our plans, our choices, and our lives to God, relying on Him for the strength to resist temptation, the ability to look at each challenge as an opportunity for growth, and the wisdom to make sound decisions.
Call To Action: Which of these strategies do you already do well and which would you like to improve upon? What next steps can you take to break the cycle of emotional eating?
Don’t forget to download your FREE PRINTABLES:
52 Ways to Find Peace Without Food
10 Tips for Mindful Eating – download from my Subscribers Page or click here to subscribe.
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1. Narcotics Anonymous. 6th ed. Chatsworth, CA: Narcotics Anonymous World Services, 2008. xv. Print.
2. McKenna, Paul, Ph.D. (2015). Freedom from Emotional Eating. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.