8 minute read

Eating: a perfectly natural thing to do when we’re hungry. And yet, eating has changed over recent decades and more so during Corona Times. With the creation of the 24/7 food environment, takeout delivery services, and the rise of Instagram food inspiration to tickle our taste buds, many of us find it increasingly easy to access food, especially food that lights up our brain’s reward centre and yet is not particularly great for our health.

Combine readily accessed, less-than-healthy foods with the emotional challenges of recent times and it’s no surprise that emotional eating has been attracting a lot of attention. If emotional eating is something you’ve been experiencing, you might find the four steps outlined here useful: for starters, here’s a brief explanation of why we may find ourselves reaching for food.

We eat for a variety of reasons of which actual biological hunger is just one. You might recognise the sensations – rumbling noises from your tummy, a gnawing sensation that reminds you that it’s time to eat, even the realisation that your focus is being pulled towards food – but many of us have lost touch with the ways in which our inner eating expert tells us to re-fuel.

Instead, surrounded by food, we reach for an instant hit of deliciousness without thinking. We may eat because we’re hungry; we may also eat in response to:

  • environmental triggers – those sights, smells and even sounds that divert our attention away from whatever we’re doing and towards food. Part of ‘head hunger’, environmental triggers usually strike when we’re bored and in need of mental stimulation, or when we’re delaying a task and welcoming a distraction. They can embed themselves in our subconscious coping mechanisms, meshing themselves into ‘heart hunger’: we’ve all seen the heartbroken heroine of movies reaching for ice-cream to soothe her pain and we learn that coping technique. They can also activate our senses: the wonderful aromas that waft out from a café or bakery, the advertisements that pop up during breaks in our favourite TV programme, even seeing a character in a movie chowing down on Chinese takeaway…they’re all examples of environmental cues to find food, even if we’re not actually hungry
  • rituals (sometimes known as ‘habits’) – whether alone, with family or friends, little rituals come to signify a moment in time; many of these involve food. Many of my clients have noticed how these little rituals become embedded in habitual behaviour – for example, meeting a loved member of the family for a cuppa and catch-up that automatically involves cake or a muffin. I consider these a mix of ‘head hunger’ and ‘heart hunger’ – sometimes we eat without thinking; other times we eat because it’s become embedded in relationships and not joining in might affect the relationship
  • social celebrations – these are classic examples of food bonding us together and helping us to create enduring memories of happy times. Most of the time, cake is involved – think weddings, baptisms or naming ceremonies, birthdays, engagements, even the randomly determined Cake Days that seem to have become a feature of school or work life: it seems that cake pops up at every possible opportunity and, as a fan of a good cake, I’m not complaining yet when they’re happening too often or we feel pressured by others to engage, they can become a problem
  • lifestyle factors – perhaps we’re working shifts that limit our access to food when we’re going to be physically hungry so we strategically re-fuel, or perhaps our income is erratic so we treat ourselves when we can
  • stress or emotions – usually unpleasant, uncomfortable or painful thoughts or feelings that need to be numbed or soothed. The classic ‘heart’ hunger often learned in childhood (or from watching that heartbroken heroine eating ice-cream from the tub)

Physical hunger is clearly a normal part of life: we have to eat to survive, and our body and mind sends us alerts and notifications when we need to refuel. The other two types of hunger – ‘head’ or ‘heart’ – have become a normal part of life in a food-abundant environment. ‘Head’ hunger, once recognised, may be more straightforward in its management; ‘heart’ hunger, being so intimately connected with emotions, less so. And ‘head’ and ‘heart’ hungers can merge, further blurring the issue. But there are ways forward…

Whatever the main driver, emotionally-driven eating is normal. I defy anyone to tell me it’s not: it’s something that we are all capable of and, most of the time, it’s fine. Until, perhaps, we find ourselves using this as our ‘go to’ therapy, our first tool to calm our mind, and we start to have those niggling thoughts that perhaps our eating is having a negative impact on our health.

Let’s be honest: most of us who eat for emotional reasons aren’t bothered that we enjoy cake as part of a celebration or see a large ice-cream with a double Flake™️ and sprinkles as a natural part of a day at the beach.

Usually, people talk to me when their emotional eating is something unwelcome, something they have decided no longer works for them, something they want or need to change.

Changing our relationship with food is possible; it requires understanding, a little bit of planning, and liberal dollops of acceptance and forgiveness when it goes off-piste. So how do we tackle this? These four steps are a solid starting point:

  1. Understand: our bodies are hard-wired to seek pleasure rather than pain (anyone else humming Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” to themselves? No? Just me then). Add in our natural preference for short-term gain over long-term consequences, and we can begin to see that this isn’t about willpower; quite simply, cake (or whatever your preferred option is) has an unfair advantage and clever tactics are needed to level the playing field. Understanding and recognising what is actually happening for you when you close to reach for food is the first step in making more informed choices
  2. Track it: identify your particular pattern to build out your knowledge of you and your reasons for eating. If you’re eating because you haven’t fuelled appropriately across the course of the day for whatever reason, a straightforward strategy can be created to help combat “rebound hunger”. Or maybe emotionally-driven eating shows up when you’re home alone and feeling isolated. Perhaps it’s when you’re bored, or when the day’s work is done, the kids are in bed and you can finally have some time for you. Could be you’ve got a pressing deadline to meet or an unpleasant task to do or a tricky conversation to have…or it might be your way of coping with Sunday evening dread, or upsetting news…
  3. Learn from it: the deeper reasons behind eating offer useful information about what is actually being felt and how better to resolve it. Maybe you’re looking for a distraction, different mental stimulation, or a delaying tactic: a short break, some breath work, or a puzzle such as crosswords or Sudoku might help. Feeling lonely? Maybe calling up a friend or support buddy would fill that need. If you’re anticipating a difficult conversation, would planning it out and visualising a positive outcome help? If it’s “You Time”, what might help you maximise your enjoyment – a DIY mani-pedi, time spent on a hobby, or doing some physical activity, or even putting a smaller serving of your preferred indulgence in a bowl (putting the rest away somewhere out of view) and eating it with full focus on its sensory elements…whatever, you can learn from it and build out a strategy of options to help you do something different.
  4. Forgiveness and self-compassion: these two keys are essential to changing any behaviours but especially those rooted in deep emotions. There will be times when we just give up or give in, dive headfirst into a bag of crisps or a family block of crappy chocolate, and apply a temporary sugary or savoury soothing balm. It takes exploration and practice, trying out different coping tools or techniques to discover what works when, and sometimes we need to give in to it. After which, we can reflect on it, learn from it, and adjust or adapt our approach.

Eating well is about so much more than simply eating when physically hungry. Food and eating weave their way through our culture, our lifestyles, our health, our ability to turn up as our best self each day. Yes, there’s the biochemical, nutritional, and weight management science to consider, sorting myths and fallacies from fact; those take care of the “what”, “when” and “how much” of eating and food choice. There’s also a need to look at psychology and behaviour, as this helps us to understand the “why” and “with whom” that are the starting point for every food episode we experience.

Exploring eating from every angle helps us to improve our relationship with food – all food: whether for fuel, health, celebration, socialising, enjoyment or for the taste experience, we can bring our whole self – emotions and all – to the table.

Fancy a chat about your eating? Email me or call 07905 093840.

Until we speak,

Stay well.


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