As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, 33-year-old Emiko Grant used to turn to food to manage her emotions. “I regularly ate dark chocolate, ice cream or baked goods to cheer me up,” says the research administrator from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Although the food provided temporary relief, it never lasted. “I would feel better while I was eating, but then I would feel irritable and guilty,” Grant says. And the food wasn’t just harming her emotional health: “Heart disease runs in my family, and when I measured my waist I discovered that I was just above the acceptable range for healthy,” Grant says. “I was also really tired to the point where I would often take a two-hour nap after work.”
Food and your moods
It’s not uncommon for people to turn to food when they’re stressed, sad, bored or even happy. “For some people, emotional eating is a minor issue,” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Women’s Health Center at the Wooster branch of Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and author of Eating Mindfully (New Harbinger Publications). However, it becomes problematic if it gets to the point where you’re always eating for emotional reasons and you then experience guilt or shame or your health is negatively impacted (e.g., you’re overweight, suffering from diabetes or simply not eating enough nutritious foods). It’s also a problem if it’s preventing you from truly examining—and addressing— real issues in your life (think: an unhappy relationship or dissatisfaction with your job).
The good news is that you can get a handle on emotional eating. “Once I started keeping a food diary and becoming more aware of my cravings, I saw a definite pattern of reaching for certain foods based on my emotions—so I went to see a naturopathic doctor who helped me to start developing healthier eating habits,” says Grant, who is now several pounds lighter and slimmer around the waist.
Beyond the scale
But controlling emotional eating should never just be about losing weight. “It’s about putting food back where it belongs,” says New York City psychoanalyst Carol Munter, co-author with Jane Hirschmann of Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life (CreateSpace) and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (Ballantine Books). “It’s about developing the awareness and the energy to deal with the underlying problems that are masked by your ‘problem’ with food.” When you do that, you’ll gain control—not just over food, but also your health and your life. Here are four simple steps to help you do just that.
1. Examine your triggers
Each time you sit down to a meal or reach for a snack, ask yourself if you’re really hungry. If your tummy’s rumbling or you feel light-headed, it’s probably physical hunger. But if you’ve eaten recently and it’s more about soothing yourself, it’s probably emotional hunger.
“Anxiety, depression, boredom and anger may all contribute to overeating,” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Lafayette, Calif., and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Another Diet (Jossey-Bass). Many mood changes can also be traced to personal interactions, so look for the source in your exchanges—whether someone said something that was upsetting or you became overwhelmed by work or family demands.
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