Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Emotional Eating

The lecture that meant the most to me at Hilton Head Health was the one on emotional eating. At 300 plus pounds, you're not obese just because you skip a few workouts and forget to count your calories! I have known for forever that emotional eating is a big problem of mine. And it's not just about eating when I'm sad or lonely; I eat when I'm happy, too. I celebrate the good things in my life with food that makes me happy instead of food that makes me healthy. I've also thought for a very long time that this emotional eating and my occasional binges are what have kept me at the weight I am. Boy was I wrong. Over and over again the trainers at camp told us that "you are what you consistently do." I do not consistently emotional eat, nor do I consistently binge. I consistently don't count calories. I consistently don't take alcohol into consideration. More importantly, I consistently don't address my emotional eating and try to figure out where it's coming from.

There are two types of emotional eating: conscious and unconscious. Conscious means that you can easily identify why you're eating: you are aware that you feel sad, insecure, happy, etc... These emotions are on the surface and they are easy to recognize, as is your desire to eat in relation to those emotions. So, what do you do to fix this? First off, you can't out think your obsessions or your compulsions, so don't try. You must create a new behavior to offset them. Go for a 10 minute walk, drink a cup of tea, etc... Create a NEW behavior to train yourself to crave, and your emotions will eventually be tied to that behavior. Think about the food you eat when you know for a fact it is linked to emotions. For example: ice cream is typically linked to sadness in women. So, if you always eat ice cream when you are sad, your body naturally starts to crave it when that sadness emotion set in. Create a new habit to crave. When you have identified the emotions that trigger specific eating, leave the environment where the food is. Get away from it and occupy your time with something other than food. Come up with a strategy so you don't have to think about what to do during that intense emotion. If you're like me, emotions are very strong, scary strong. It is frightening to me to know how powerful they are and how much I let them control me.

In contrast, unconscious emotional eating is not as simple to deal with. These emotions have not yet surfaced to the conscious level, but the good news is that they DO have symptoms. Symptoms include: an increase in food thoughts and cravings to the point of distraction, physical signs of stress such as heaviness in chest, grinding your teeth, trouble sleeping, difficulty relaxing, small food slips, eating between meals, slight overeating, racing thoughts, difficulty quieting your mind, or you are easily frustrated or short tempered. All of these symptoms happen because you are not plugged into your feelings and eating is happening out of your control. An example: you're having an uber stressful day at work. You have been so busy you haven't had time to even think about eating your healthy lunch you brought with you. A coworker has a plate of homemade brownies that he is escorting through the newsroom. While you're furiously stabbing your keyboard to death, you grab the brownie, scarf it down without a second thought, and the next thing you know you reach for a salty bag of crunchy chips. These are things you might not have done if your day was smooth-sailing and you had plenty of time to enjoy your homemade bowl of healthy goodness. When you have a problem and you eat over it, your problem has now reproduced another problem. In other words, you now have two problems. This is when the "monkey chatter" comes back into your head, distracting your thoughts and corrupting your decisions. The resulting bad choices you end up making are red flags. Start taking note of all these red flags and document them somehow. When you start to get sloppy with your health, you will notice more and more red flags. These red flags indicate something else is going on; something is brewing in your emotion realm. The speaker, Lisette, literally has little red flag post it flags that she tags somewhere she can see them every time she slips. She sticks one of them in her chosen spot every time she slips so she can address the cause of the flag. This might seem like a lot, but once you a able to identify the source of them, it will become easier to identify at the start of the urge. Once you have matched the emotion with the red flag, you can establish your "food rules" and make a plan for your recovery of emotional eating.

Food rules are strict guidelines that you have to follow, day in and day out. The only advice I have for following through is telling yourself how much you wanted to do this at the time you created the rules. Think back to how you felt when you established them and get back to that level. My food rules are to follow the eating and caloric schedule I was on while I was at Hilton Head Health. 3 meals a day, 300 calories each, and 4 snacks a day, 100 calories each. Nothing more, nothing less. And if I want to drink, that's fine, but I need to keep it to a 5oz glass of wine, which is about 100 calories.

An example of putting that all together: Yesterday was my first day back at work and I felt hungry throughout the day and wanted to snack on something every 15 minutes it seemed like! I kept telling myself that there's no possible way I could really be hungry. How can I be hungry if I'm just sitting on my butt doing nothing, but at camp I was exercising 8 hours a day and I didn't feel hungry? My identifying emotion at work was boredom. I was pretty much wrapped up with everything I needed to do, so I was falsely feeling hungry because I was bored. Now, the next step to solving this puzzle is to figure out why the boredom emotion equals hunger. I eat when I'm bored. This is my biggest weakness. I am fine all day until I get home from work at 10:30pm. I have already eaten dinner by the time I get home and I eat because I am bored. I am bored because I live by myself and I have nothing to do until I can finally wind down enough to go to sleep. For two years now since I have had this schedule, I have solved the boredom emotion with food. Because my body is used to food paired with the emotion of boredom, I have trained my brain to crave food when I feel bored! Kind of crazy, huh?

So now that I have figured all of that out, the next step is to create an action plan to retrain my brain. Unfortunately I have a job where I can't just get up and go for a 10 minute walk when I need to, so I have to find something to do at my desk. I snagged a few stress balls to take to my desk. When I start to get bored at work, I will take a few minutes to squeeze the stress balls until I stop thinking about food. Mine is a blueberry and I brought a strawberry one and a grape one for my two other co-workers I share a desk with! :)

When I get home from work I'm going to work on the meditation techniques I learned at camp. I am creating new behaviors for my mind to associate with boredom. To get a grasp on your emotions, you have to bring them all out into the open. "When you put your emotions on the altar they will alter." I don't remember who said that, but I love it. The emotional stress cycle is easy enough to understand, but it's not as easy to break. Imagine a circle: at the top is the precipitating event or the precipitating thought, then it slides down to the emotional reaction, next come the emotions that trigger overeating or compulsive eating behaviors. Next come feelings of shame or failure resulting from overeating or compulsive eating. Then the cycle starts over again. And over again. You have to cut the circle off at the emotional reaction to break the cycle. But you have to be brave enough to get there. You can't do anything about the precipitating event or thought, but you can control the reaction. Emotions are not facts and they don't define you. But, they do have a life expectancy and they can be changed. They can serve you well but they can also lead you astray. Insight is the key to determining what they mean. This insight is the key to freedom from emotional eating , but it needs to be actively developed and strengthened.

Now, this next part is what I thought was the most enlightening. Emotional hunger versus physical hunger. They can both feel the same until you learn to identify their different characteristics. The next time you feel the urge to overeat, think about these differences and be aware of why you are hungry. The most common symptom of emotional hunger is a specific craving. If you know exactly what you want, it is emotional eating. With physical hunger you will eat anything and your desire for food is not specific. For example, if you are craving pizza, there is an underlying emotion there that's brewing that you have "cured" through pizza. So, now that emotion is automatically connected to a pizza craving.

The following is straight from a handout given to us at Hilton Health, so all this info belongs to them...

Emotional Hunger is:
-Sudden. One minute you're not thinking about food at all, and the next minute you're starving. Your hunger goes from 0-60 within a short period of time.
-For a specific food. Your craving is directed towards a particular type of food, such as chocolate or chips. With emotional eating, you feel you need to eat that specific food and nothing else will do.
-"Above the Neck." An emotionally based craving begins in the mouth and mind. You want to taste that pizza or chocolate. You begin to focus intently on how to pbtain the desired food.
-Urgent. Emotional hunger compels you to eat right now. There is a strong desire to instantly ease or soothe oneself with food. It can't wait.
-Connected to difficult feelings or situations. emotional hunger can be triggered by strong feelings or reactions (anger, resentment, helplessness, envy), or certain states of being (boredom or tiredness).
-Automatic or absent-minded eating. Emotional eating can feel as though you're in a trance (automatic eating). You may eat standing up, walking, in a car, or very quickly. Or, you may not particularly notice what you've eaten (absent-minded eating).
-Continuous eating, despite fullness. Emotional overeating gets tangled up with feelings. The person stuffs him/herself to deaden troubling emotions and continues to eat even when over-full.
-Followed by feelings of guilt. The paradox of emotional over-eating is that the person eats to feel better but ends up berating him/herself for bingeing or eating 'bad' foods. Promises are made to make amends (I'll exercise, diet, skip meals tomorrow).

Physical Hunger is:
-Gradual. First your tummy begins to rumble. One hour later, it growls. Physical hunger gives you steady, progressive clues that it's time to eat.
-Open to different foods. With physical hunger, you may have food preferences, but they are flexible. your appetitie remains open to alternative choices.
-Based in the stomach. Physical hunger is connected to stomach sensations. You feel gnawing, rumbling, emptiness, and even an ache in your stomach with true physical hunger.
-Patient. Physical hunger would prefer that you ate soon, but doesn't command you to eat right at that instant. It can wait a bit longer.
-Out of physical need. Physical hunger occurs because it has been four or five hours since your last meal. you may even experience light headeness or low energy if overly hungry.
-Deliberate and Aware of the choices made with eating. With physical hunger, you are aware of the food in your hand, in your mouth, and in your stomach. You consciously choose whether to eat only half your sandwich or to consume all of it.
-Stops when full. Physical hunger stems from a desire to fuel and nourish the body. Once that intention is fulfilled, the person stops eating.
-Realizes eating is necessary. when the intent behind eating is based on physical hunger, there's no guilt or shame. The person accepts that eating, like breathing or sleeping, is a necessary behavior.

I suggest that you let yourself get really hungry a few times (unless you have some sort of medical condition, of course). When you let yourself get really hungry, you can identify your physical vs. emotional symptoms. Once you have identified them, you will be able to differentiate between the two.

With all that being said in this obscenely long post, I leave you with this saying: Eat to live; don't live to eat.


  1. thank you for writing this! I shall save this to favourites so that I can return and reread. I am learning how to recognise real hunger, rather than emotional hunger, which does indeed feel like the real thing, when you are in it. well, it thinks like the real thing... the urgency crowds out any other thinking. it is very much like having a hypoglycaemic attack, which is scarey, only it can happen when I have eaten a decent meal and was not too low before I started, so definitely not a hypo.
    it seems to me that a binge trigger and early binge state is like going into a panic attack. I don't feel like I am going to have a heart attack, like a panic attack can feel like but the urgency!! its ruthless! so hard to find a gap between urge and painfully full.
    your post has addressed a lot of aspects to this, so thank you, and God bless you. thank you for your honesty and courage.

    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting. You are absolutely right and I am right there with you. Mind over matter. We GOT THIS! :)

  2. I have started to drink loads of water to fill up my belly that way I don't get hungry as often.

    1. That's right! I need to remind myself of this constantly!

  3. Losing weight shouldn't be as hard as many people try to make it. People who are desperate to achieve weight loss are often prone to take more risks. The only reason most people fail in their fitness goals is that they have good intentions at first to adopt a new lifestyle, yet after a few weeks or months, they abandon their good intentions and slip right back into their old bad habits that gave them the excess body fat in the first place.

  4. You explained. very clearly about the hunger and so on..
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