Keeping a healthy weight—and especially losing weight—is not easy for many reasons. For one, easy access to extremely tasty high-calorie foods pushes many to overeat. Living with stress—a common source of negative emotions—also makes it difficult to keep healthy habits. In fact, according to http://www.webmd.com/, up to 75 percent of overeating is driven by emotions.
Stress in particular has the power to push people toward overeating and other unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that stress forces people—particularly those who usually restrain their eating—to eat more and to choose high-fat foods over healthier ones. The high-calorie foods serve as self-medication, producing a relief from negative emotions. Of course, the relief is only temporary—the effect of chocolate, for example, disappears after only three minutes, according to studies. However, because the food or beverage reduces a negative emotion, even temporarily, we tend to turn to it again next time we experience the same emotion.
Not all food works, though. When sad, disappointed, irritable or anxious, we don’t crave carrots or celery. Instead, we turn to ice cream, chips, cookies or chocolate. Research shows the palatability of these foods may affect brain chemistry. Yet, food only numbs the feelings—without resolving underlying causes. And, by adding inches to our waistlines, we also pile guilt onto the mix.
Become Aware of Your Habits
The first step to conquering emotional eating is identifying your bad habits. Do you find yourself eating when you are not really hungry or when you are in a certain mood? The next step is to pinpoint the triggers. Some emotional eating is caused by negative emotions—being bored, irritated, upset or stressed out. Certain thinking patterns, such as “I had a bad day at work; let me treat myself” or “I am overweight already, so what harm will one cookie do?” also push people to overeat. And unhealthy behavior patterns, such as stocking the pantry with tempting and unhealthy food, can also contribute to the problem.
To establish your patterns of emotional eating, write down the foods you eat and the accompanying feelings and thoughts. Record the times you eat and drink, the types and quantities of foods and beverages, your hunger rating (on a scale of 0 to 10) and situations preceding eating and any notable emotions. Next, review the journal, searching for triggers.
Forming Healthy Habits
Depending on the triggers, your strategy will differ. For some, learning to recognize the physical hunger may be needed. Ask yourself, “What exactly would feel good in my body now? Is it something hot, cold, sweet, crunchy or mushy?” Narrow the food down without judging it good or bad. Learn to trust your body.
Those with unhealthy thinking patterns need help to identify the patterns and “refashion” the thinking. For example, instead of deciding that an extra cookie won’t matter, you may say to yourself, “I’m trying to keep a healthy weight—so the cookie may make a difference. Why don’t I eat something healthier?” While it may sound forced in the beginning, over time you can change the way you think.
If you use food as a reward, a stress reliever or a distraction, try brainstorming and developing a list of healthier, non-food-related coping activities, such as reading, doing Sudoku, exercising, breathing techniques, or meditation or massage. Keep a written list of the most effective coping activities handy—to turn to in times of intense emotions, when it may be hard to think clearly.
As with any other habit, emotional eating takes motivation, time and practice to break. Get support from your doctor of chiropractic and other health care providers you visit. Find what will inspire you to form healthy habits. For many people, appearance, health and well-being serve as meaningful motivators—but they may need to be spelled out into practical terms, such as an outfit you want to wear, a health problem you want to avoid or an activity you want to do. Take some time to verbalize it in detail.
Your doctor of chiropractic can help you find specific foods and techniques that will help you—and give you detailed homework. Once you start a new program, remind yourself about your reasons to keep weight off to help yourself stay on track.
Signs of Emotional Eating
- Eating when not physically hungry
- Unbalanced eating—consuming large portions of food in a short time
- Eating when angry, depressed, bored, anxious or stressed
- Feeling guilty after eating
- Eating at night to cure insomnia or loneliness
- Gaining weight in times of stress
- Reducing Stress
The following strategies can also help lessen the effects of stress on your health and improve stress tolerance.
- Think positively to lessen the negative effects of stress on your health.
- Try aromatherapy, or smelling the essential oils of plants, to help you unwind after a stressful day. Aromatherapy is recognized worldwide as a complementary therapy for management of chronic pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress-related disorders.
- Relax with a cup of tea.
- Laugh it off. Humor relieves stress and anxiety and prevents depression, helping put your troubles in perspective.
- Build a support system to help you cope with stressful events.
- Listen to music. Music, especially classical, can serve as a powerful stress-relief tool.
- Try meditation to calm your mind. Focusing on our breath, looking at a candle or practicing a nonjudgmental awareness of our thoughts and actions can help tune out distractions, reduce anxiety and depression, and accept life, no matter the circumstances.
- Get a massage. It has been shown to have therapeutic properties, reducing blood pressure in people with hypertension and helping patients with chronic low-back pain to decrease pain, depression and anxiety and improve sleep.
- Give exercise a shot to relieve stress and get into good physical shape.
No matter which stress-relief methods you choose, make it a habit to use them—especially if you feel too stressed out to do so. The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.
Reprinted from the October 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Chiropractic Association; 45(5) 40-41.