Emotional eating is a thing. We tend to connect our thoughts to the memories food has created: pizza after soccer practice, ice cream for a job well done, cake to celebrate a milestone. It’s not unusual to want to be transported back to a happy time in our lives, especially when things are going wrong. Food can work as a teleport of sorts to a warm and fuzzy place where there is little to worry about.
It is not surprising that this connection can cause issues with the relationship we build around food. Food becomes a crutch when negative emotions come up and little by little, we start to equate a certain food with happiness. “My iced latte will make me happy”, or “potato chips will cheer me up” becomes the standard way of dealing with emotions. Food can make a situation comforting, but when a pattern evolves and most food-related decisions are made with emotions in mind, it can lead to a cascade of ill-thought choices. There is nothing wrong with eating dessert or grabbing some snacks, but these should be done to fulfill a physical hunger, not necessarily an emotional one.
Here are five ways to remove the connection between food and emotions:
Label the Emotion
When you find yourself reaching for food, even when you are not physically hungry, attempt to label the emotion behind it. Are you bored, tired, angry? Is stress behind the donut craving? Are you upset over a fight you had or frustrated over a problem you can’t solve? Identify the emotion connected to the food so you can better prepare next time the situation arises. Labeling the emotion helps you understand it is the emotion you are trying to quash instead of hunger. It may even help you question whether you really want to eat a certain food.
Sit in the Feeling
Yes, it is uncomfortable to have negative emotions. Not many people enjoy feeling lonely or upset, but covering that emotion up with food will not make things better in the long run. Try to sit with the emotion and feel it. Feeling is part of being human. We go through various emotions throughout every day. Observe it and take note; yell, scream, cry – whatever your outlet is to release that feeling. With time, it may be possible to get accustomed to feeling uncomfortable (and surviving it).
Sub it Out
The old standby, right? When craving hits just sub it out. Most people have tried, but few enjoy doing it. Hear me out on this one. The trick is to sub it with something you find equally or even more satisfying. It is not meant to be a punishment of sorts; it is meant to replace your standard way of soothing yourself. If you hate exercising then don’t sub the chocolate chip cookie with a walk, because the chances of success will be slim. Opt for something that does feel gratifying whether it be some time watching tv or even a cup of coffee. Find something that you find rewarding and connect that to your emotions.
Separate the Event From the Eating
Is Thanksgiving about grandma’s mashed potatoes or grandma? Were you drawn to attend a birthday celebration for the cake or the birthday girl herself? The event and the food are not a package deal. One more time, the event and the food are not a package deal. They are separate entities and should be looked at as such. You can be excited to eat the mashed potatoes, but I can guarantee you the joy you feel for the day are for grandma and not the taters. Do not let the emotions surrounding the event lead you to believe the food is the reason. The cake did not make you laugh. It did not make you feel loved or appreciated – it was the company you shared the cake with that did that. You can replicate those emotions over and over again without necessarily eating the food over and over again.
Food Does Not Taste “Good”
Human taste buds cannot taste “good”. There is no such thing. What makes food taste good is the connection we have associated to it. If you were taught that sweets are a reward, then chances are you will reach for sweets when you want to be rewarded. If having copious amounts of food on a plate was the way you were used to showing love for someone, then that is the way you will show it. Yes, you deserve to feel happy and content, but there are other ways to soothe an emotion that has nothing to do with abusing food.