Contrary to what intuition tells us, we don’t only eat when we’re hungry.
The American Psychological Association reports that “27% of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34% of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.”
Meals can easily become a kind of self-medication for dealing with negative emotions. Often without us realizing.
The question then is, “How can we change our relationship with food to stop emotional eating?”
Research has shown that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness helps transform food from an escape into a pleasure.
Harvard’s Dr. Lilian Cheung and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offer the following summation in their book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life: “Mindful eating means simply eating or drinking while being aware of each bite or sip.”
A simple solution. One that’s easier said than done, as many things are.
But before we can explore exactly how mindfulness helps people gain control of their habits, we have to accurately understand how emotional eating develops.
How to know if you’re an emotional eater
The Mayo Clinic offers a succinct definition of emotional eating:
“Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness.”
It’s a consequence of daily hassles, the negative emotions that stick to us in our day-to-day lives. To deal with those uncomfortable feelings, we turn to food.
There are a few questions you can ask yourself to discover if you’re eating emotionally:
- Am I reaching for food when I’m not hungry or already feel full?
- Do I eat when I feel stressed?
- Do I use food as a reward for accomplishing a task?
- When I think of “me” time do I gravitate to thoughts of food?
- Do I feel guilty after turning to food for pleasure?
- Am I distracting myself from responsibilities by eating?
Emotional eating develops over the course of a lifetime, making it a difficult relationship to recognize. In turn, that means typically offered solutions rarely work.
Dieting isn’t the solution
The most common misconception about emotional eating is that a diet would solve the problem. But dieting doesn’t tackle the underlying issue.
A Finnish study found that whether we’re eating pizza or a nutritional drink, opioids release in the brain as a result, leading to feelings of euphoria, pleasure, and safety. Eating leads to a physiological emotional response.
Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal Ph.D, and Robert Segal, M.A, writing for HealthGuide: “Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally.”
So, for many people who eat emotionally, food becomes their only pleasure—a means to bury negative feelings. Breaking the habit is tough because overcoming it means tolerating difficult emotions, ones previously suppressed by food.
Rediscovering awareness with mindfulness
As stated earlier, mindfulness eating proposes to bring our attention fully to not just the taste of food but our reasons for eating it. Too often we eat without thinking. We can easily see ourselves eating a Greek salad while our eyes glaze over emails, Facebook messages, and the news of the day.
Eating is often an automatic activity, almost zombie-like. Before we know it, the bowl is empty and we wonder where all that food went.
Mindfulness aims to bring attention to every aspect of food, from making a purchase at the grocery store to sitting down for a meal. According to Harvard Health Publishing, Psychologist Jean Kristeller found that “mindfulness helps people recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger and satiety and introduces a ‘moment of choice’ between the urge and eating.”
By bringing awareness to eating, we can make substantial changes to our attitudes and bodies.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that mindfulness eating leads to “statistically significant decreases in weight, eating disinhibition, binge eating, depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, negative affect, and C-reactive protein.”
Mindfulness is more than a buzzword—it’s a practical solution.
Be mindful of your emotions
As with any skill, developing mindfulness takes time and practice. It helps to start slow, to recognize that the process isn’t going to be easy.
Because mindfulness involves drawing attention to your emotional state, it means acquainting yourself with the negative emotions that have been stuffed by food.
Emotional eating expert Allison Dryja writes, “Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired—you name it. Welcome your negative emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings.”
With each day, you can become better acquainted with your emotions and they no longer play as large of a role in your choices. You begin to reassert your autonomy when it comes to food.
Tips for mindful eating
The USDA found that Americans spend on average 67 minutes each day eating and drinking, oftentimes while engaged in another activity.
Mindfulness practice aids you in devoting your attention completely to the meal. And paying attention to the food you eat begins before you lift the fork.
The following are a few tips to practice mindfulness eating:
- Consciously decide on the foods you’re going to purchase from the grocery store. That means assessing the value of each item on a shopping list, thinking through each purchase, to prevent yourself from impulse buying.
- Eat when you have a moderate appetite. If you wait until your stomach is grumbling, you’ll reach for the most immediate reward. Feed yourself according to a schedule to prevent gorging.
- Analyze your cravings. Ask if you’re feeling physical hunger or are you motivated to eat because of something else (e.g., stress, habit, time of day, etc.). Analyze what gives rise to your cravings and what causes them to disappear.
- Eat slowly! Using your non-dominant hand may help, as it forces you to take your time.
- Take tiny bites. While you chew, place your utensils at the side of your plate and draw your mind to the flavors of the food.
- Practice gratefulness. Contemplate the steps taken to bring the food to your table.
Remember, mindfulness is a skill. It’s impossible to appreciate its full benefits without dedicated practice, just as practicing mindfulness meditation increases grey matter over time.
At the heart of mindfulness, eating is transforming your relationship with food from a coping reaction for stress into a pleasurable experience. Because food should be treated as a pleasure, not a narcotic.
Of course, practicing mindfulness eating isn’t easy and sometimes it’s not enough. Practical solutions may involve therapy as well. After all, each person is unique and deserves individuated attention.
However, the lessons learned from the Buddhist practice of mindfulness offer a sound starting point for developing a positive relationship with the foods you eat.
For more information about emotional eating and strategies to tackle it, please visit my food and fulfillment ultimate guide.
Rachel Eddins is a Therapist and Emotional Eating Coach in Houston, TX. She helps people make peace with food, mind, and body, find their inner worth, and begin their unique path to an extraordinary life through her Beyond Emotional Eating program. Visit her site to learn more at Eddins Counseling