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Emotional eating is an incredibly popular topic. Not popular in the sense that people like it, but popular in the sense that it’s something many people feel like they’re struggling with, and they’re all searching for answers on how to stop doing it.
Today, I have a special treat for you. This is an interview I did with my friend and coworker, Sarah Campbell. She is a coach for One by One Nutrition (as I am, if you didn’t already know), and her speciality is the sticky situation of emotional eating. So I wanted to pick her fabulous brain a bit to give you some insight into how a great coach approaches helping her clients with this common struggle.
Bolded emphasis is mine. Enjoy!
On a practical level, a lot of emotional eating I see comes from lack of time. Time for self-care, reflection, and recreation. Food is easy, pleasurable, and immediate, and seems like a good option in a pinch.
Additionally, most of my clients are women, and often put themselves last on the list of priorities. They all have great rationalizations, but the bottom line is that we can’t take care of others if we are exhausted and under-nourished.
And by under-nourished I don’t mean food, but rather joy, time alone (this one is HUGE for many people), or activities that they find enjoyable that are not chore-oriented (art projects, gardening, dancing, reading…).
We all naturally take care of the basics first- food, water, shelter, and safety. And that is the right thing to do. The thing is that for most of us, there is more to life than the basics. There is also our quality of life, or thought of another way, feeding our hearts or spirits as well as our bodies. When we begin to address those needs by adding more joy, it feels easier to let go of some of the unneeded food.
My Key Take-Away Prevention is the best medicine! By filling ourselves up through self-care before reaching rock bottom, we bolster our defenses against the urge to eat when things get tough.
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Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, feeling lonely, and depression/anxiety are the most common scenarios I see.
One tool we use is looking for patterns. Many people eat more on the weekends to de-stress from the week, or eat more on days they have important meetings, or social obligations they may not actually want to attend. When we see these patterns, we can then strategize solutions, perhaps schedule a non-food reward, like a massage or a walk with a friend.
I also want to mention that food rewards are not off limits. I often plan to eat one of my favorite meals when I know the earlier part of the day will be stressful. I love the fall, and have been enjoying braised meats, baked squashes, and brown rice pilafs lately. (Choosing healthy foods you enjoy on an everyday basis is a great help!)
I also feel like many of us don’t really understand how our bodies work. There are so many pathways in our nervous and hormonal systems that can wind around and end up in our brains as hunger signals. Tiredness and anxiety are two big ones that I see many clients dealing with. I find that when they understand how the body works, it is easier to manage different sensations as they arise.
My Key Take-Away While each person will have their own specific feelings that trigger the urge to eat emotionally, there are certain ones that tend to be common, particularly feelings of depression and loneliness. Being able to identify the feelings that tend to cause YOU to want to eat emotionally can help you then start to devise non-food strategies to manage those feelings.
I usually suggest a pause before eating, take three deep breaths, and to ask the question internally, ‘What is it that I truly need in this moment?’. Even if we choose to go ahead and eat, the pause and inquiry allows us to gather information about the situation that can help us find solutions other than eating later. And if it’s something simple, say with the example of loneliness, they have the opportunity to call a friend.
My Key Take-Away Yes! This first step is a great way to start becoming aware of those things that trigger the urge. Taking that moment to pause before (or even during) the emotional eating, is super powerful.
First I listen. In particular, I listen for turns of phrase that give me clues about how they operate internally. I listen for the words ‘should’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘if only’, ‘when I’, anything that points me to their basic idea of themselves and how they treat themselves.
After I have a basic idea about their self-relationship, I do my very best to tell them what I noticed about how they treat themselves and the role food plays in it in a very practical and compassionate manner.
It is very important to me to communicate the truth that they are not abnormal, or alone, and that they can learn new ways to navigate difficult issues in their lives besides eating.
Then we create their first skill(s). I often give one that is very practical, say, ‘eat more protein at breakfast’, along with one that is emotionally oriented, say, ‘When you notice that you feel anxious, stop what you are doing, put your hands on your heart, and take three deep breaths’. A large portion of my clients find great relief when they begin to listen more to their bodily needs, and less to the mind’s what-ifs.
And we are off, gradually building skills and competence in both the practical and internal realms.
My Key Take-Away The key in her answer here is that if you are struggling with emotional eating, you are NOT alone in those feelings or struggle! Take a good look at how you treat yourself overall, and start to learn new ways to handle the tough stuff by bringing a bit of mindfulness into the picture.
My all-time favorite is talking out loud. You can talk to another person, but I actually think it works better when you talk to yourself. That way there is no fear of judgment, and no censoring. Car commutes are fantastic for this. We all build up stress during the day. This is a normal part of being human. For some of us, we have loving partners or friends we talk our day over with each evening. But some of us live alone, or our partner is ill or busy… and we end up having a cookie or a drink to help us let go of the day’s stresses.
Just saying things out loud (Oh, I can’t believe my co-worker said that and then…) lets us blow off steam. I like to begin the conversation in a neutral way with something like, ‘So what’s going on?’, and let it flow from there. It doesn’t matter if what you say makes any sense, it’s the getting it out that helps.
My Key Take-Away So I’m not the only one who talks to myself? Good to know! And I love that she uses this to help people essentially vent to themselves… let all that tension out into the open by verbalizing it so it can take up a little less space inside your head.
Oh, what a cool question! I would love to be able to teach us all at any age that we are all deserving of love and nourishment, and that other people’s (our parents!) emotional states ARE NOT our responsibility. I often wish that I could wave a magic wand and have all humans feel deeply reassured. So many of us are acting from outdated fears that we are not aware of.
So I guess I would love it if there was some way that people could learn how to regularly look inside and notice what their motivations for behavior are, and to make sure that they are current and serving them well. Honestly, I am not sure how I would teach that.
[A note from me…] I asked this because I love to think about how we can take the things we apply to adult clients and translate them into learning opportunities for the next generation. As parents, we want to raise kids who aren’t bogged down by things like emotional eating, and so by looking at it like “going back in time” I think it helps us to find ways we can potentially help raise our kids in a way that’s setting them up for a peaceful relationship with food down the road.
1) We can help our kids to know that they are valuable, worthy, loved, and accepted just as they are, no matter what. 2) While it is wonderful to care deeply about others, their tough feelings are not ours to bear as well. We can be kind and caring without absorbing someone else’s struggle. 3) Emotion management and mindfulness are HUGE. Helping kids to identify their emotions, and find outlets for them that don’t rely on food, can be a major help to them throughout their lives!
My Key Take-Away What I take from her answer are these three things:
1) We can help our kids to know that they are valuable, worthy, loved, and accepted just as they are, no matter what.
2) While it is wonderful to care deeply about others, their tough feelings are not ours to bear as well. We can be kind and caring without absorbing someone else’s struggle.
3) Emotion management and mindfulness are HUGE. Helping kids to identify their emotions, and find outlets for them that don’t rely on food, can be a major help to them throughout their lives!
Thanks so much to Sarah for this wonderful insight!
I love that she was able to give a “First Step” of pausing to ask yourself ‘What is it that I truly need in this moment?’ It is something you can start using right away, to help you chip away at emotional eating if it is something you’ve been struggling with.
Don’t forget to grab your FREE list of 25 ways to add joy to your life without using food! It’ll help to give you some ideas for when you decide you don’t want to eat emotionally, but you’re not sure what ELSE to do!
I also created a brand new e-book dedicated to moving past emotional eating. It’s called the Emotional Eating Toolkit E-book, and it will give you several strategies you can use to give yourself more tools in your emotional-management toolbox, so that food no longer has to be the default option. Check it out!
The timing of this interview post was a wonderful coincidence, because my first Diet Mindset Makeover course group is currently working through the Emotional Eating section of the course this week! It’s a big section of the course, and it has a lot of helpful strategies to give you options for handling all the difficult emotions that pop up throughout our lives. You can get on the wait list for the course (and download a FREE lesson) right HERE.
I hope this was a helpful insight into a coach’s brain other than my own. If you’re interested in working with Sarah or I at One by One Nutrition, you can check out our program HERE.