APRIL 9, 2020
To top it off, you are likely spending more time on the internet and seeing articles with titles: “5 Ways to Stop Emotional Eating”, leading us to believe we shouldn’t be doing this.
As a Registered Dietitian who specializes in relationship to food, I want to tell you that what you are experiencing with food right now is normal. Food has had emotional associations since we were babies and emotional eating is not something we need to fight, but rather, bring mindful awareness to.
When faced with stress, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and sends us into fight or flight mode. This is a self-preservation mechanism designed to keep us alive, thank goodness! Nowadays, the same response happens when we lose our jobs, try to take care of kids while working, experience financial stress, and are faced with a global pandemic. Chronic stress can lead to high levels of cortisol, our stress hormone which, when elevated for prolonged amounts of time can negatively affect our health. Cortisol inhibits insulin production, keeping glucose in the blood stream ready for use. However, over time, our cells become starved of glucose and send hunger signals to the brain leading us to want high carbohydrate, energy rich foods. Hence, the grazing, the binging, the stress eating, especially when we are home all the time in the midst of a global health crisis. It truly is a recipe for a strong desire to eat. This reaction to stress is not bad, it is biology.
Often the approach to emotional eating is to restrict, deprive, or distract, which then back fires and produces feelings of failure and guilt. During this time, we need less criticism of ourselves and more self-compassion. We are doing the best we can.
So how can we deal?
We must look at eating in response to stress or intense emotions as a coping mechanism. It is a reliable, effective, tasty coping mechanism that has likely been helpful in past situations. It can also become a harmful coping mechanism when we use food to numb our emotions, or eat to the point of discomfort, which can negatively affect our mental and physical health.
So when the urge to eat hits: pause. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What am I feeling? What just triggered my urge to eat? Write it out, talk to someone, call a friend. What patterns and habits can you notice?
2. What do I need? Most people eat to fulfil an unmet need related to an emotion or physical feeling. Do you need more rest? Warmth and comfort? Do you need to feel heard? Need to express yourself?
3. Was eating helpful in this situation? It was helpful if the eating stops and you feel better. If you continue to go back to the snack cupboard, the coping mechanism was not helpful for the feeling.
Food can absolutely be a coping mechanism during this time, and it’s not our only coping mechanism. Some good strategies to cope with (and perhaps distract from) our current circumstance could be:
• Listen to a feel-good favourite song
• Get some fresh air. Sit outside or go for a walk.
• Plant some seedlings
• Dance like no one is watching
• Shake your body (this is one of my favourites, a sweet release!)
• Cook or bake something new
• Read a book
• Meditation and breathing (try an app like Calm or Insight Timer for free guided meditations. Check out the Santosha livestream for a few meditation options.
• Stretch or take an online yoga class. Santosha is streaming 25 a week right now.
• Work on a puzzle
• Take a nap
• Doodle or colour
• Video call a friend
As you heal your relationship with food, you will begin to let go of food as your only coping mechanism and reclaim your eating as a pleasurable experience. If food and eating is causing a lot of stress for you lately, know that I am here to support you during this time. You don’t have to go through this alone.