Freelance writer Andrea Tolu shares his experience with mindful eating and explains how mindfulness helped him overcome these patterns.
Even if you don’t know what emotional eating is, you’re probably familiar with its consequences.
When we eat emotionally, it has nothing to do with real hunger. It could be out of habit (that’s what we do at lunchtime), or because we feel sad, bored and lonely, or we had a hard day and deserve some comfort. The result of this overeating is often an unpleasant state of “food hangover,” which can lead to overweight and obesity.
I became aware of my emotional eating when I quit a very intense fitness program to start a much lighter one. Up until then, I had managed to disguise my bad eating habits thanks to a high calorie requirement that allowed me to have as much food as I wanted.
But when that changed, a few issues started to appear: I would often feel groggy, bloated or even nauseous in the morning, I never seemed to be genuinely hungry, and I was putting on weight. That’s when I knew I had to improve the way I approached food.
It’s been an interesting journey of self-discovery so far, where I learnt a few things that I’m happy to share here.
Practice mindful eating
If I think back to my episodes of emotional eating, they all involve eating as quickly as possible and without thinking, almost in a daze. Compulsive behaviour thrives on lack of awareness, that’s why mindfulness was the single most important thing I did to fight it.
Mindful eating simply means paying attention to your sensations, before, during and after a meal. It starts with very simple questions.
Before: am I hungry?
I soon realised I would often eat even if I wasn’t genuinely hungry. It could be because it was lunch or dinnertime, or I was afraid to be hungry later, or because dinner for me was a pleasurable moment after a day of hard work. Once I became aware of that, I learnt how to let my appetite build up to a healthy level and then eat according to my needs.
During: what does it taste like?
The paradox of overeaters is that they absolutely love their food, but eat it so fast that they can’t really taste it. I tried several times to eat slower without success. Eventually, what really worked was focusing more on the taste, texture and aspect of food. At that point, slowing down came naturally. Eating mindfully allows me to satisfy the physical and the emotional need at the same time. If I don’t pay attention to my food, I’m more likely to go for more, even if I’ve satiated my appetite.
After: how do I feel?
Eating is a pleasure, that’s why sometimes it’s hard to stop. When we overeat however, the pleasure ends when our body has to cope with the excess of food. Focusing on the dark side of overeating was another powerful deterrent for me: I hate feeling sluggish, lethargic and irritable after having too much food, and I hate waking up in the morning feeling full and bloated from the night before. Whenever I have the urge to go overboard with food, I remind myself how I will feel afterwards.
You can use a few tricks
We all have our little addictions, those foods we could never be without, or that we’d better not have around, else we wouldn’t eat anything else. For me, those are coffee, nuts and seeds.
Although the best answer to such cravings comes from within, there are still a few tricks you can use to stay away from temptations. These should be temporary solutions, but can be very useful.
For example, I stopped keeping nuts and seeds at home, and started to use a smaller coffee maker. More recently, I discovered I should stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.
It’s a personal thing
Whenever I would mention I was trying to improve my relationship with food, the reply I often got was: “Why would you do that? You’re not overweight.” That was true, but although the scale was telling me everything was fine, I knew I had to work on it.
Your relationship with food is made of three variables: what you eat, how much, and when. These will change when you start dealing with your emotional eating, but the people around you won’t always understand why you’re doing it, even if they mean well.
Whenever I have to endure a certain amount of pressure to eat more than I need, I remind myself it’s a personal thing, and try to (very politely) stick to my resolution.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Over time, I learnt that dealing with my emotional eating goes beyond keeping a healthy weight or lowering my cholesterol levels, but it’s part of a larger self-improvement effort.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you make mistakes then, because it’s an ongoing process of small victories and relapses, and it takes time.
If the feelings that trigger your overeating are too harmful or complicated to deal with, then counselling and psychotherapy can be a valid help.
Are you struggling with overeating? What are your progresses so far?
MyMind therapist Anna Nauka recommends mindfulness as a helpful tool in controlling emotional eating.
“Mindfulness and mindful eating gives us time to experience and understand our negative emotions. Paying attention to our thoughts, emotions and behaviours gives us space to find an alternative strategy to cope with our difficult feelings and gain a perspective towards the stressful events,” said Anna.
“Emotional eating is one of the problems we experience as a modern society connected with dieting and stress regulation. It develops as an inadequate response to a negative emotions and in a longer term can lead to both mental health and physical health difficulties. Mindful eating is one of the positive alternatives, that we can use to overcome emotional eating.”