Mind & Body

What's Eating You?

The next time you devour a pint of ice cream at midnight, don’t beat yourself up and start a new diet. Try these healthier coping strategies.

What's Eating You?
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You're walking down the street in a fine mood when you bump into a former colleague. She tells you she’s just gotten a promotion to the job of your dreams—and she’s newly engaged. Next thing you know, you’ve wandered into a Baskin-Robbins and ordered a double scoop of chocolate ice cream, which you gobble up on the way home.
DRIVEN TO EAT. Once home, the feeding frenzy continues—you raid the fridge and cabinets until whatever feeling propelled you to eat finally subsides. You spend the rest of the night berating yourself for a lack of discipline and willpower, declare yourself fat, and vow to start a diet the very next day.
EAT TO COPE. Using food to cope with troubling emotions is common but ineffective. Instead of examining real issues in your life (the dissatisfaction of being in a job you don’t like or the loneliness of being single), you focus on controlling your eating. After all, it’s easier to go on a diet than look for a new job or enter the dating world.
BREAK THE CYCLE. The harder way—breaking the cycle of emotional eating—could be the most important action you’ll ever take. It will ease feelings of guilt about food and give you a new faith in your ability to look after yourself with compassion. You’ll also learn about who you are. “Instead of scolding yourself, you’ll see it as an opportunity to grow,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., author of Emotional Freedom (Harmony, 2009). Here are four steps on the path to a healthier, happier place.

Curb Your Cravings
Three minutes of meditation can work magic when you’re struggling
to overcome an urge to eat for comfort.

Step 1: Check in
When is ice cream just ice cream, and when is it a salve to soothe a lonely heart? Ask these questions to guide you to the answer.
Am I physically hungry? If your tummy’s rumbling or you feel light-headed, it’s probably physical hunger. If your mouth is craving sensation, or if you’ve eaten within the last three hours, it’s probably emotional hunger.
What am I feeling right now? Common overeating triggers are anxiety/stress, frustration, depression, anger, boredom, loneliness, jealousy—even joy, says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., author of Body Intelligence (McGraw-Hill, 2006).
What was I just thinking about? Many mood changes can be traced to personal interactions, so look for the source of your emotional shift in your most recent exchanges. Perhaps someone drew attention to a sore spot of yours in some way.
What can I do instead of eating? Find an alternate activity that will help you work through your emotions. (See Step 3 for ideas.)

Step 2: Take notes
The key to transforming emotional eating is to identify your unique triggers first. Do you eat when someone criticizes your work or your parenting? Or when the clock is ticking on a major project? Keeping track makes you aware of your patterns and gives you an opportunity to make better choices, says Abramson. Here’s how to do it:
CREATE A CHART. On a pad or in a notebook, draw four columns: time of day, location/people, food/ amount, and emotion or thought.
WRITE DOWN THE FACTS. Make a note when you have a snack that seems tied to your emotions. You might write: 2 p.m./at my desk/six Oreo cookies/nervous about big presentation.
REVIEW THE RESULTS. At the end of the week, read over your record and look for patterns. What were the events, people, places, or situations that led to the emotional eating?

Step 3: Find solutions
If your journal reveals that you eat when you’re bored or stressed, find other ways to distract or calm yourself in those situations. Orloff offers these suggestions:
MEDITATE. Three minutes of meditation can work magic when you’re fighting an urge to eat for comfort. For an easy exercise, see “Calming Meditation” on page 56.
GO OUTSIDE. “With emotional eating, all you think about is yourself and your habit,” Orloff says. Get outside, breathe in the fresh air, and see the larger world.
SAY A MANTRA OR PRAYER. Whether you say “Let it be” or “Peace” or “I can do this,” say it slowly, and with your eyes closed. Take a deep breath in between each repetition until the difficult emotion passes.
EXERCISE. Take a walk, practice yoga, or work out. Ten minutes can be enough to feel refreshed. Exercise naturally lifts mood by boosting endorphins.
CALL A FRIEND. This tried-and-true tip is solid, research-backed advice. Social support can make you feel valued and cared for and help you cope with all kinds of stresses.

Step 4: Learn from your binges
Sometimes healthier coping mechanisms fail and you have to go ahead and eat that brownie. But it’s critical that you do so without judgment, says psychoanalyst Carol Munter, coauthor of Overcoming Overeating (De Capo Press, 2008).
BE KIND TO YOURSELF. “Don’t say you’re disgusting or call yourself names,” says Munter. The more you yell at yourself, the more you fuel your desire to eat. “Then you believe your problem is that you ate six doughnuts, when in fact, it’s that you were unable to sit with what was bothering you, give it a name, and calm yourself down.”
EAT THE FOOD YOU WANT. Do not try to substitute carrots when you really want a brownie. The point is to deal with the emotion, not the calories, so putting yourself on a diet—even if it seems to help—is exactly the wrong thing to do. It might help in the moment but you’ll go off it later that week—or next month.
REFLECT LATER. Once you’ve given in to a desire to overeat, be sure to take time later to reflect and shed some light on the episode. In this way, each binge becomes a positive lesson about yourself and what propels you to overeat.
GO DEEPER. You may find it helpful to seek group or one-on-one therapy to further explore the issues that provoke your tendency to overeat.
FOCUS ON YOUR INNER STRENGTH. As you become more practiced at sitting with difficult feelings instead of eating through them, you’ll eat more for fuel than comfort. You’ll demonstrate that you can take care of yourself and that you can have compassion for yourself—and that’s a relationship you can build on, says Munter.

Learn to sit with your emotions
As you become practiced at sitting with difficult feelings instead of
eating through them, you’ll demonstrate that you can take care of yourself.

1. Sit in a comfortable position.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Inhale and exhale slowly. As thoughts come, refocus on your breath.
4. Practice this visualization: Breathe in light and clarity; breathe out stress. Breathe in vitality; breathe out fear and worry.
From Emotional Freedom, by Judith Orloff, M.D. (Harmony, 2009)

Cathy Slois, a 36-year-old media buyer, often found herself sneaking snacks
while cooking, overeating at meals, and raiding the fridge a short time later.
When she started recording her eating habits, she found that the overeating
coincided with visits from her father-in-law. “He criticized everything from how
I made chicken to how I cleaned the house, to the fact that I worked instead of
being at home with the kids,” she says. A few visits later, instead of raiding the
refrigerator, she spoke to her father-in-law and was able to have an honest
conversation about his criticisms. The upshot: Slois no longer overeats after
her father-in-law visits and he has gradually stopped criticizing her.

Ending emotional eating takes courage and practice. These resources can help make it less stressful.

OVERCOMING EMOTIONAL EATING: SELF-HYPNOSIS Audio CD by Avinoam Lerner; $23 at mindbody101.com
Avinoam Lerner’s soothing voice helps you internalize the messages on this self-help CD. Lesson one: Learn to trust your inner wisdom, and you’ll find new ways to cope with difficult feelings. Listen every day for 21 days (the recording lasts 23 minutes) to see new habits take root.

THE FOOD & FEELINGS WORKBOOK: A FULL COURSE MEAL ON EMOTIONAL HEALTH by Karen R. Koenig (PGW, 2006); $15 at barnesandnoble.com.
Psychologist Karen Koenig offers reflective exercises that show you how to identify, experience, and learn from your feelings instead of eating through them. Use the “Change Boosters” to help you practice your new, healthier behaviors.

ZAFU DELUXE MEDITATION CUSHION from Sun and Moon Originals; $50 at sunandmoonoriginals.com.
Meditation can shine a light on the issues that send you to food. Use one of these comfortable and durable zafu cushions to make sure you’re sitting high and with proper alignment, and you’ll be able to go deeper.