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Mindful and Emotional Eating

    • Mindful Eating

    • We’ve all experienced this: your fingers scrape the bottom of the bag of chips/cookies/pick-your-poison and you suddenly realize that you may have reached into the bag for handful-after-handful and yet you haven’t really “registered” or gotten satisfaction from many of the bites! Maybe you’re watching TV, on the computer, driving in the car, or lost in your own thoughts and/or feelings. Maybe what drove you to snack in the first place was not actual physical hunger, but stress, anger, boredom, habit -- take your pick of emotions! Unfortunately, when we’re not “mindful” of the bites we are eating, either because we are not paying attention or because we’re eating for “head hunger,” not for a physical need, extra bites become extra calories, become extra pounds.

      Clearly, a lot of our eating ends up being “out of whack” with our actual physical hunger or need for nutrition. We also don’t always fully appreciate and savor the bites we take so that it ends up taking more and more – and more -- bites to achieve some level of satisfaction. Let’s take a look at some “mindful” and “intuitive” eating principles which can help better align our food intake with our physiological needs -- and enhance our satisfaction with what we’ve eaten so that we don’t need to take quite so many bites!

      Honor your hunger: Keeping your body fed when you are physiologically hungry may mean you have to start actively listening for -- and gauging –your hunger. If you were to start using a hunger scale when you are thinking about eating, where would you say your “state of hunger” typically falls along a continuum of “completely empty” to “so over-full that you feel physically ill?” Take some time to note your own patterns – and how often you are eating for reasons not at all related to physiological hunger. Sometimes we eat beyond fullness just because each bite tastes so darn good ( “taste hunger”), or we find ourselves eating to soothe feelings or in response to our emotions, boredom or habit (“head hunger” ). So start listening to and rating your hunger – it’s hard to hear something when we’re not paying attention!

      Feel your fullness: Be mindful of physiological signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. How often are you really stopping your eating based on completely non-hunger related cues? Probably more often than you even realize. You may have been a lifelong member of the “clean-your-plate-club,” or you can’t stand to see anything go to waste because you paid good money for it! There has been a lot of research which has shown that, as adults, the amount of food we eat is strongly influenced by the size of the container, or how many options are available. For example, if offered a bowl with two M&M colors and one with several M&M colors, guess which bowl empties more quickly? Learning to “feel your fullness” can start by abandoning the idea of “eating to completion.” Instead, pause in the middle of eating for a satiety and a taste check. Are you hungry enough to continue? Do you feel satisfied? Is the food enjoyable enough to merit any more bites or are you just eating because the food is there? When you discover your fullness level, you can also identify your “last bite threshold,” when you know that bite of food in your mouth should be your last one. At that point, do something to make it a conscious act, such as nudging your plate forward or putting your utensils or napkin on your plate.

      Discover the satisfaction factor: How often do we overlook the true pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience? It helps to become a “mindful eater.” Ask yourself, “What do I really want to eat?” Maybe that tub of off-brand ice cream that was on sale looks promising, but would a scoop of your favorite premium brand be more satisfying? Once you’ve determined what you really want to eat, be sure then to eat without distraction, in a pleasant environment; eat when you are gently hungry, rather than overly hungry. Don’t settle – if you don’t love it, don’t eat it – and if you love it, be absolutely sure to savor it! When we pay attention to our food, we take much more satisfaction in it and we become more aware of how much we’re putting into our bodies.

      Making the transition from our typical eating patterns to becoming a mindful or intuitive eater is a process that takes awareness, practice, practice and more practice. We have so many cues to eat (from advertising or even just driving down a thoroughfare full of fast food outlets) and so many distractions from the actual “task at hand” while we are eating that maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that so many of us over-consume calories on a regular basis. In approaching your food intake in a mindful way, you can take back control of what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat.

    • Emotional Eating

    • At first, eating more “mindfully” and truly savoring the food that we consume, may sound like an issue of “easier said than done” -- but with attention and practice, we can make tremendous strides towards reconfiguring our relationship with food so that our choice to eat becomes more about nourishment and, ultimately, satisfaction. As part of this process, one of the first things we need to explore are those often well-established patterns of “emotional” eating: turning instinctively to our good friends “Ben and Jerry” when we’re so angry we can’t think straight; soothing ourselves with chocolate when our feelings are hurt; almost mindlessly reaching for one cookie after another just because we’re bored -- and they’re there; maniacally munching salty, crunchy chips in response to the heart pounding, rapid breathing, stimulus-overload feelings of stress. Haven’t we all at some time or another let feelings overrule hunger – only to end up with additional feelings of guilt and/or regret when we got to the bottom of the bag/carton/box/container/crumbs?

      We can start working towards addressing emotional eating issues head-on by first examining the situations that can trigger our desire to eat. These triggers, for the most part, fall into the following categories:

      • Social: eating around other people or in social situations, including being influenced by seeing what other people are eating.
      • Situational: eating because the opportunity is there (As we say in our weight management program, “If it’s there, you’ll eat it!”).
      • Thoughts: for example, making excuses or rationalizations for eating.
      • Physiological: eating in response to physical cues (such as a growling stomach).
      • Emotional: eating in response to feelings.

      It can be challenging for some of us to really differentiate between these latter two categories. How can we know when it is truly physical hunger as opposed to a drive to eat to deal with an emotional need? Here are five important distinctions to help you decipher whether you’re experiencing emotional or physical hunger:
      • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually
      • When eating to fill an emotional need or void, you may crave a specific food (e.g., the good ol’ Ben and Jerry’s) – and only that food will meet your need; when you eat to fill a physical need, you’re more open to a variety of options.
      • Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food that you’re craving; physical hunger can wait.
      • You may continue to eat even well beyond the point of physical fullness when using food to address an emotional need; for physical hunger, you’re much more likely to stop when full.
      • Emotional eating is significantly more likely to result in feelings of guilt than eating to satisfy physical hunger.

      How can we begin to put emotions and food in separate corners? Start by making it a point (and ultimately, through continued practice, a habit) to ask yourself, "Am I physiologically hungry?" If not, what do I need – and how can I fulfill it? Along these same lines, I learned of a great technique on a recent MyLifeStages television episode called the HALT technique. This is a series of questions to ask yourself when you are tempted to eat: Am I Hungry? (If yes, then honor your hunger) Am I Angry? Am I Lonely? Am I Tired? (If A, L or T, identify a way to deal with those feelings without food, such as going out for a walk, calling a friend, taking a nap, etc.) Identifying what you are feeling and/or what you need is not always easy and it may take time and a lot of thought and patience to figure this out – but it is vital to determine if you want to move away from emotional eating. Remember that what you need is probably less tangible than food and so it may take some real work not only to figure out what that needs is, but also how to satisfy it. Food is attractive because it is an easy choice, but unless it is physiological hunger, it is not the answer or even close to the best choice.

      Sometimes the need is fairly simple to fulfill. For example, if you turn to food for extra energy or a lift when you’re tired, you may be able to circumvent that pattern by getting more rest. If food is a reward (a big part of our culture!), it will be critical to identify and utilize some non-food reward to satisfy this same need.

      Sometimes, the need may be deeper or more challenging to address, if it’s dealing with sadness, anger, loneliness, etc. In these situations, we use food to temporarily feel better or “self-medicate” in a way. How you would feel if you had to give up the habit of eating when dealing with the emotion or emotions you’ve identified – and what part of your relationship with food have you been reluctant to confront? Change can’t happen without awareness, so it’s worth the investment in time and thought to do some deep digging, problem-solving and planning.

      Figuring out what you truly need is the critical first step towards then identifying what you can do as an alternative to eating – when stressed, bored, lonely, angry, sad, etc. Emotional eating can be a numbing, initially satisfying fix – but it will always be a temporary fix. Until we “look under the hood” and address our unmet needs, we will stay trapped in that cycle of: uncomfortable feelings --> temporary relief --> guilt, recrimination and regret as a result of food choices and/or overeating --> further desire to tamp down these new uncomfortable feelings with more emotional eating – over and over -- and over again … Learning how to confront that cycle can ultimately lead us to a place where food once gain becomes satisfying nourishment, not guilt-ridden punishment.

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