I received this question the other day...
"I was wondering if you had some awesome tips for avoiding emotional eating. If I've had a bad day I will use the excuse "I deserve this (fill in the blank, usually some sort of ice cream, chocolate, candy, cookies, etc.) after the awful day I've had." I can't seem to get past food as a reward, or using it to improve my mood. I also don't want to pass these tendencies onto my two daughters."
Oh, you are SO not alone my darling, and so smart for wanting to get this habit under control. Emotional eating is a huge factor in the obesity trend we are seeing running rampant these days. First, lets define what an emotional eater is. Emotional eating occurs when we use food to self-soothe. Call it food addiction, compulsive overeating, or emotional eating...it's all the same.
Eating becomes habitual for comfort, not for nourishment like it was intended. I have found that it is extremely prevalent in the LDS culture. For those of you who aren't familiar with the LDS faith, part of the practice that we believe in is to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and drugs. For many people in the world these are their leisure activities. Going to meet up with some friends for a cup of coffee, or a drink at the bar is part of their social norm. Because LDS people refrain from those activities they turn to food for social settings. Think about it, when was the last time you went to any sort of gathering where there wasn't food involved? We meet up to go to dinner, or for ice cream. We are constantly dropping off cookies, or bringing treats. Food is EVERYWHERE. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. Food is good, it really is. However, it is because of these habits that we start to feel like food is equated with having a good time, and in a sense happiness.
Now, let's take you out of the social setting. You're at home. It's been a hard day, or hard hour, or a rough ten minutes. You are feeling stressed and you want whatever is going to calm those nerves and make you feel better the fastest. The second your mind switches over to what might be in your pantry, your focus switches from whatever you were stressed/mad/sad/depressed about to the food. Your mind was quickly taken off of that negative feeling to a positive feeling you've equated with food. It doesn't even have to be a negative emotion, it can simply be boredom. this self-reinforcing habit becomes routine, which is where we see weight gain and over eating issues. The more you stop listening to the internal hunger cues in your body, the more likely you will be to over eat. Some signs to look for with emotional eating are: instant cravings and satisfaction, craving specific foods (with real hunger you will be more open to food options, with emotional eating you want a specific food), eating when you are full, and feelings of guilt associated with what you're eating.
This pattern of emotional eating can lead to a negative cycle. You eat poorly, you get angry at yourself for eating poorly, you have the, "well now I've ruined my good day of eating so i might as well kibosh the rest of it," attitude, and so you eat more. It's a bad road. Don't venture down there.
The specific question asked put an emphasis on the topic of food as a reward for ourselves, and for others. We quite often feel like we deserve different foods. After, for example, a hard day of work, an intense emotional bout, a vigorous work out, etc. We reward our children with food for good behavior, and this becomes expected. Read HERE for an example of what "deserving things" can do for you, or NOT do for you for that matter.
So, what is the answer here? How do we overcome these habits that we've incorporated as part of our normal routines?
1. Recognize your triggers. Sit down and make a list of what sends you into an emotional eating frenzy. Boredom? Social situations? Stress? Sadness? Guilt? Routine? Part of knowing how to overcome this habit is knowing how to recognize it. Don't fill that void with food. Learning to address the issue will help you to remedy it correctly.
2. Distract yourself. Make a list of possible alternatives to eating that you can do when you are wanting to answer to that pattern. Get a drink of water, do 10 push ups, go walk to the mail box and back, pick up ten of your kids toys, etc. Whatever it takes to get your mind off of food.
3. Don't completely deprive yourself. For those who are trying to cut out unhealthy foods, emotional eating can come in to play when you feel like you are deprived of all your favorite foods. Allow yourself to indulge every now and then, in moderation. When you are feeling completely deprived it can set your brain off to obsess over whatever it is that you're depriving yourself of, more. If you're DYING to have something, try having a bite or two and waiting to see if you're satisfied. If you are then be done. Listen to your internal cues. Whatever you do, don't let that bite turn into a binge fest.
4. Ask yourself...Am I really hungry? Put up post it notes with this phrase on your pantry door, or fridge. Try to make a conscious effort to be alert to your hunger cues. If you aren't hungry and are just snacky or want something out of habit, try chewing gum. It can help to occupy that mouth without the calories.
5. Stop dieting and start eating healthy. Crash diets don't work long term. They will leave you feeling deprived and hungry more than anything. Rather than thinking about what you can't eat, think about what you can eat. Fill your cupboards with good healthy choices. Making healthy eating a lifestyle will do more than just help you lose weight, you'll feel better, and your family will too.
6. Don't make food a reward. Find other ways to congratulate yourself, your kids, your family, etc. If you are trying to eat healthy, plan out what your rewards will be ahead of time. If you are dying to have that new pair of jeans, set a goal that you can have them if you workout consecutively for 60 days...or whatever your goal may be. With your kids find other means of rewarding them, stickers, quarters, trips to the movies, etc. If you create the habit of food being a reward for you and for your kids it will become the expected, and the norm.
I think the most important thing to remember here is that food is fuel for your body, so eat good foods to fuel yourself, not just to fill time. You wouldn't go to fill up your car with gas and then stand there and try to fill your car as it overflows, just because you're bored. Don't do the same thing to yourself. Your real reward will come when you feel and look the way you want to. Emotional eating occurs when you trade what you want most, for what you want at the moment. Our society has such a quick fix, instant gratification mindset. Don't fall prey to this. With some determination you can get rid of your emotional eating habits, and help your self achieve results. Although you may feel like you're doing yourself a favor by allowing yourself to overeat this or that, but if you look at the big picture you're doing more harm than good.
Hopefully that helps somewhat! This is a big issue that requires some dedication to change, but overcoming it is definitely possible!