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Diets and compulsive food behaviors have become such a way of life that we’ve forgotten how to listen to our internal hunger cues. The body has a mechanism that indicates when it’s hungry; however, hunger is not always the driving force behind your eating behavior. In fact, chances are you often eat for any number of reasons, besides hunger.
Food is often used to soothe emotions. The occasional snack to boost your spirits is not a concern; however, if you’re turning to food for comfort on a regular basis, it may be a problem. Emotional eating habits may lead to obesity, compulsive eating, or other health problems. The trick is learning to differentiate between eating because of hunger and eating because of mood.
Becoming aware of your emotional triggers is the first and most important step. If you can identify the reasons you overeat, then you can work to manage your behavior. Try the following steps to identify and overcome your emotional eating habits:
Step 1: Track your eating behavior for one week.
Record everything you eat for one week. Make sure you include everything (small snacks and beverages add up). Record when you ate, how you felt before and how you felt afterward, and anything else that might be related to the experience (any other consequences or thoughts). Always record the information at the time of eating, since memory fades and is inaccurate even an hour afterwards. Keeping a record will help you to identify: what causes you to start eating and what happens as a result. From this record, you can then identify when you are most prone to emotional eating and what foods you usually choose as a result.
Some examples to look for are: Do you often feel sad or depressed just before a food craving? What triggered the depression? What negative or irrational thoughts contributed to the experience? Is the emotional column in your journal empty? This could be a sign that you are eating to avoid boredom.
Step 2: Review the week.
Did you eat when you weren’t hungry on a regular basis (once a day or more)? If not, congratulations! You are one of the few who eat only based on physical need. If you did, proceed with the rest of the steps to get back in touch with your body and your physical hunger needs.
Step 3: Listen to your body.
Tune into your natural hunger signals, making a distinction between emotional hunger and stomach hunger (true hunger symptoms include an emptiness in your stomach and stomach rumblings). If you are truly hungry, don’t deny yourself. Ask yourself “What would satisfy this particular hunger?” Then eat what seems like a good match. If your body is telling you no, try to figure out what’s stimulating your desire to eat and work toward finding a more effective solution. For example, if you are tempted to eat the leftover food in the refrigerator because you’re bored, think about a better solution, such as going for a walk or calling a friend. At first it may be difficult to separate real hunger from emotional eating, but keep practicing and you’ll get the hang of it. Continue to keep your journal, so you can track your improvement.
Step 4: Eat consciously. When you’re eating, take the time to enjoy your food. Eat mindfully. Pay attention to and enjoy every mouthful. Try to not combine eating with other things, such as working or watching TV. Multitasking may be efficient, but it takes away from the satisfaction of eating and may lead to overeating. If you’re sitting in front of the TV, you may eat a whole bag of chips without even remembering it.
Step 5: Listen to your self-talk, that internal dialogue that precedes emotional eating. Write down these thoughts in your journal to help you see them objectively. Are they rational or irrational? Once you have identified the thoughts and beliefs, you can begin replacing irrational ones with positive thoughts, using a technique called thought stopping.
Thought stopping is a way to stop negative thoughts. You yell “Stop!” in your head at the first recognition of a negative thought. For example, a negative thought such as “This is too hard. I can’t do it” can be stopped before it gains strength by silently saying “Stop!”
The technique works best when the negative thought is replaced with a positive one, such as “This is challenging, but I can do it.” Once you identify the negative thoughts that precede emotional eating, you can develop a selection of positive thoughts to use when the need arises.
Step 6: Get to the bottom of your emotional triggers.
Now that you’re aware of your emotional eating triggers, confront them before they can sabotage your conscious eating success. Learn to manage your reaction to triggers that may lead to overeating. Develop solutions, aside from eating, to deal with your emotions. If you’re likely to eat a box of cookies when you’re stressed, think ahead and develop an alternate plan of action. For example, decide to practice relaxation techniques or get some exercise. You’ll feel better about yourself, and you’ll be working toward relieving some of that stress.
Step 7: Be patient.
Eating habits are not easily changed. It will take time to become accustomed to your new method of conscious eating. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve overcome the biggest barrier, which is realizing that you’re an emotional eater. Now you can take gradual steps toward eating to satisfy physical, not emotional, hunger.