Emotional eating is the most destructive force causing people to break their healthy “clean” eating after ignorance of caloric content. The problem is not that these comfort or over eating situations occur; it is that we allow them to occur too often. We all know from experience that our will power fluctuates between times of strength and weakness in which our decisions will be very different even though the situations are virtually identical. Instead of keeping the “all or nothing” mindset that has been ingrained in us, replace it with a slightly more lenient guideline that allows for some breathing room and breaking your own rules.
Guideline: Use the 90/10 compliance rule
Your mood and social pressures should only determine your caloric intake about 10% of the time, while your chosen healthy diet dictates the vast majority of your food and liquid intake. The devil is always in the details when it comes to eating so I want to spell this out for everyone: 10% = 2 meals / week. You still need to be somewhat mindful of calories but most likely in 2 meals you will not be able to undo an entire week of calorie deficit. If you are like most people, you believe that taking Friday night, Saturday, Sunday off in luxurious restaurants, drinking, brunch, etc. is okay. Wrong, that is a whopping 30% of meals, which at 20% over the rule will almost always break the fat loss calorie deficit you set at the beginning.
In addition, you need to really embrace your 10% and enjoy it, I do. Don’t feel guilty and call it “cheating”, it is just part of your plan. Guilt is a strong negative emotion and ends up affecting us in all sorts of undesirable ways. One of which is to continually come back to make us feel bad, inducing more emotional eating and destroying our healthy diet. Just let it go and enjoy your ice cream, cookies or chips, but stay within your calories for the week by portioning it out.
Strategy: Be aware of actual hunger versus emotional/hormonal hunger
Actual hunger (and thirst) is when the body needs calories (or water) versus emotional/hormonal hunger which is when you are eating to cover up the way you feel emotionally (depressed/bored) or balance out some hormonal issue that was caused by unhealthy eating/activity, like a blood sugar (insulin) crash. People tend to eat for comfort in certain situations, like when they are stressed or bored, so those are the times to raise your red flags and check in with yourself as to whether you actually need calories because it has been a few hours or if you are just mindlessly stuffing your face. Remember food is fuel but you don’t need a continual hook-up to the gas line, eg. constant snacking.
Strategy: Deal with your emotions directly, eating won’t make them go away
Another major piece of this issue is a deeply embedded belief that food can somehow make our stresses and problems go away by merely relieving some of the symptoms (stress, upset, worry, boredom, etc.) for a short while. Our perception of time is often miniscule, seeing only the comfort in the next moment, but remaining blind to the crash, guilt and other negative emotions and physical realities that come with emotional binge eating. Unhealthy “comfort” foods lead you down a different path than the one you chose when you were in your natural state of mind. That view of food also thinks mostly about the taste, comfort and pleasure to soothe their emotions that food can provide rather than all the nutrients and energy. This is a function of our wealthy and inactive society where food is rarely about survival and performance for most people. Ask any athlete however and they will tell you that food is fuel because when they are performing at peak levels they become very aware of the difference it makes in their body and mind. For some food can even become a substance for regular abuse and addiction, like drugs and alcohol. In order to curtail emotional eating we need to break the belief that unhealthy foods (fatty/sugary) will solve the problem by making us feel better right now. Then replace it with it’s opposite: that addressing your issues head on will solve your underlying problems and eating well will make you feel better all day.
Exercise: Identify your top three emotional triggers for over eating/drinking
You cannot possibly work on bringing more awareness and discipline to your emotional eating if you don’t know when you do it or what triggers it. The first one or two might be very obvious but there are going to be a few triggers that you are likely not as aware of. If you are food journaling consistently then it is easy to look back through the weeks and when you see notes about how you felt or times that you broke from healthy eating, figure out what the emotions and situations that might have caused it.