WHEN WE USE FOOD AS A COPING MECHANISM, WE ARE LITERALLY EATING OUR FEELINGS.
BY MONIQUE FUNK
VALENTINE’S DAY IS A CELEBRATION OF LOVE in all its forms, particular- ly romantic love. All around are images of idealized romantic love, replete with chocolate filled hearts, long-stem red roses, sentimental cards, gentle caresses, and longing glances over candle lit dinners. For those of us in a healthy, loving relationship, these celebrations can be enjoyed as yet another opportunity to bond with our partner. However, if you find yourself without a special someone, Valentine’s Day can quickly degrade from a celebration of love, to an exercise in loneliness.
Those without a partner during the V-day season may turn to food for comfort. Earnestly devouring comfort foods may be a subconscious attempt to escape uncomfortable feelings by artificially inducing (with food), the same dopamine rush that romantic partners experience. So, when we use food as a coping mechanism, we are literally eating our feelings. When we eat our feelings, we tend to eat mindlessly in that we eat without regard to physical hunger cues in an effort to escape our true emotional lives.
In this article, Lauren Anton, Registered Dietitian and eating disorder expert from “A New Journey Eating Disorder Center,” in Santa Monica, offers insight on how to identify when and why we are eating our feelings, or eating mind- lessly. She also shares a simple, yet profoundly effective way that you can learn how to replace emotional, mindless eating with nourishing, mindful eating.
”When you learn to eat mindfully you can eat whatever you want, even corn syrup laden soda pop and high fat ice cream. You just can’t eat your feelings. Eating your feelings is what leads to ill consequences, not eating specific foods,” advises Anton.
Just as a newborn baby knows how to love, they know how to tune in to their hunger cues. They eat, not because they are tired, stressed or lonely, but because they are mindful of the nutrition their bodies crave. Mindless, emotionally reactive eating develops as we lose touch with this innate dietary monitor. According to Anton, by developing mindful eating prac- tices we can return to this state of having a wholesome relation- ship with food. With mindful eating we can eat whatever we want because we will want, and enjoy, what our bodies need.
eat, from hearing the sizzle of bacon in a hot frying pan to the tart taste ofa lemon; eating is undeniably sensory. In a time where food is routinely eaten on-the-run, for the sole purpose of preventing various disease states, or to be ‘healthy,’ identifying hunger cues or eating food for enjoyment can seem foreign. Living in a body conscious community like Southern California can make enjoying food seem completely out of bounds. Giving yourself permission to enjoy food and to re-connect with your innate ability to make wise eating deci- sions while experiencing food with all five senses is a crucial to physical and emotional well- being; and is statistically related to better body image, and a healthier body composition.” states Anton.
HOW TO IDENTIFY PHYSICAL HUNGER CUES
Every time you eat, first take a moment to tune into the hunger cues within your physi- cal body. Make note of any of the following cues: empty or growling stomach, headache, light headed, grumpy feeling, weakness or lack of energy, foggy mind, or shaky feeling.
- Physical hunger tends to build gradually, as opposed to emotional hunger which often develops as a sudden craving.
- If a craving is physically based one can generally satisfy it with a variety of foods. However with emotionally based hunger, one generally craves a specific food. Eating the desired food may satisfy an emotional craving, but only for a very fleeting moment.
- Another distinguishing factor between physical and emotional hunger is that when you are physi- cally hungry you are likely to eat to the point of satiety, then stop, free from remorse. Emotional eating, on the other hand, often leads to over indulging and post binging guilt.
IDENTIFY YOUR EMOTIONAL STATE
”It is important to discover how emotions influence your hunger and fullness cues. Insight into emotionally- fueled eating and the maladaptive thoughts that often fuel these emo- tions can help you to curtail, and eventually eliminate unhealthy eating patterns and behavior,” states Anton.
What is on your mind prior to, during and after eating? Anton sug- gests that we check in by asking ourselves: Where am I emotionally? How present am I in this moment? Is my mind calm or racing? Am I thinking about work, a relationship, some other concern? Do I feel lonely, sad, angry, content, happy, calm, tired…? Am I rushing or “dashboard dining?” Am I enjoying this food in a nice sit down environ- ment? What does the room feel/ smell/look like? Am I comfortable?
When we experience uncom- fortable emotions like stress, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and anger, our immediate reaction is to make them go away, and eating high fat, salt or sugar foods is often the easiest, quickest way to do so. When we give in to this urge, once the initial sooth- ing effect has subsided, we may find ourselves filled with guilt. We may even berate ourselves for a lack of will power. However to rely on rules, formal diets and willpower to make wholesome dietary choices is a losing battle. This is because the pleasure center in our brain is a powerful motivator that drives us to stimulate it with things like sex, drugs, love and high fat/sugar/salt foods. So rather than rely on willpower and diets, it is better to rely on yet another natural drive, true physical hunger, which we learn to identify through mindful eating practices.
MINDFUL EATING EXERCISE
To rediscover your natural relationship with food, try this mindful eating exercise. We recommend that at least once a week you invest an hour into slowly walking through the exercise. This will allow you to fully experience and embrace the suggested techniques. Then, at all meals, you can perform an abbreviated 30 to 60 second version of this exercise.
Before you begin eating check in with your emotional self. How are you feeling? What is your current situation? Refer to the ‘identify your emotional state’ section of this article.
NOTICE PHYSICAL HUNGER CUES
When you are about to eat, notice how the presence of specific foods affect your hunger and fullness cues. When you look, touch, taste, the food how does your body respond? What happens to your physical hunger cues? Do you salivate more or less?
PHYSICAL VS EMOTIONAL HUNGER
Remind yourself of the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Where are you on the scale of 1-10 in terms of physical hunger? Emotional hunger?
EXPERIENCE FOOD WITH FIVE SENSES
- Look: Look at the food. Notice color, texture, shape, moisture, etc.
- Smell: Smell the food. Notice the type and intensity of any aromas present.
- Touch: Touch the food with your hands and lips. Notice the weight, density, moisture, texture, etc.
- Taste: Place a piece of food in your mouth and hold it there with- out chewing or swallowing. Notice the flavors, hotness, sweetness, moisture, acidity, bitterness, etc.
- Eat & Listen: Now slowly chew the food, remaining mindful of the five senses, including sound. Savor this morsel of food, then swallow.
By allowing yourself to slowly and mindfully experience food in this way, you may be able to:
- More clearly identify food likes and dislikes
- Reduce binging behavior and feel satisfied with less food
- Reduce restrictive eating compulsions and learn to enjoy foods you may not have allowed yourself to enjoy in years.
”Over time, practitioners of mindful eating are able to discern healthy eating thoughts amidst any disordered thoughts, thereby re-gaining what is a birthright for all humans: the pleasure of enjoy- ing food,” explains Anton.
For more information about eating disorder treatment, addiction recovery, treatment for anxiety/depression/etc and free support groups in Santa Monica visit www.anewjourney.net or call 800.634.1733.