Food for Thought: Emotional Eating, Part Two - Get Over It

Here is the second installment of this good read on improving your relationship with food from Breaking Muscle.

Ever been told, “Just get over it”? While it sounds good in theory, “just getting over” emotional eating and the diet mentality around food is not quite that simple.

To satisfy your heart hunger, you need to find the real void your heart is craving.

To satisfy your heart hunger, you need to find the real void your heart is craving.

In part one, we talked about understanding your struggle and the underlying reasons you think about food all the time. Then we identified that the struggle usually lies in emotional or disordered eating. Now let's talk about how these struggles and thoughts play out in your life.

The Unspoken Epidemic

Remember middle school? Would you go back? Most people would answer a resounding, “No!”

Why? Because we were all insecure. We all dealt with braces, frizzy hair, clammy hands, sweaty arm pits, and so badly wanted to fit in. Who would want to go through that again? We can all laugh now about the 90 minutes we spent putting our outfit together and straightening our hair every morning, and our efforts to do anything to fit in. But the reality is that, back in middle school, no one was talking about how insecure or awkward they felt.

And yet, we all felt it.

The same is true with the how we thought about, obsessed over, and struggled with food. What would you tell your younger middle-school self? That she is going to be ok and that and she doesn’t have to try so hard, right? If you could talk to your middle-school self, you would help her see how her insecurities are playing out by doing things like straightening her beautiful curly hair every morning or telling the popular girls she likes ‘pink,’ like they do, instead of her true favorite color. All this just so she could be more confident in her own skin.

Bottom line: You would tell her that she doesn’t have to be anyone but her.

The Six Food Relationship Struggles

Fast forward to today, and here are some truths to tell your current self about your struggle with food. These are six common ways the struggle with food presents itself.

1. Heart Hunger

Feeling lonely? A tub of ice cream or bag of popcorn becomes a fast friend. Break up or fight with your significant other? Chocolate always does the trick. Constantly cutting yourself down or never feel good enough? Dieting is an easy thing to focus on. What are you really hungry for?

“Heart-hunger” is a phrase we can use to describe how some eating can be highly connected to your emotions. For instance, certain foods are considered “comfort foods,” because you may have been given them as a child, or you’ve associated it as a treat for when you’re feeling down. Other foods may be “trigger foods,” because you know you got sick eating it before, or every time you eat that one type of food, you tend to binge or overindulge. In the same way, heart hunger is based on a desire to be loved or cared for. This is an attempt to fill a hole or void that, ultimately, cannot really be satisfied through eating. To satisfy your heart hunger, you need to find the real void your heart is craving.

2. Body Imbalances

When we are physically not meeting our body’s needs for nourishment, deficiencies may cause us to think about food in unhealthy ways. Often times, people try to satisfy their true cravings in as many ways as possible other than what they are actually craving.

Here's an example: We avoid dietary fat out of fear that we will get fat. We eat more low-fat foods, a plate of vegetables or “safe” low calorie options, but still never feel satisfied. In doing so, our body is physically deprived, leaving us with a non-fueled brain that thinks about food a lot. No matter how many carrots or chicken breasts we eat, we still feel like we are missing something, we just don’t know what. The obsessive thoughts with food don’t stop.

And another example: We hop on the no-carb bandwagon. In this example, we think carbs are the enemy. While this is doable for a little while, eventually some people find ourselves energy-depleted and brain-fogged (especially while trying to keep up our 5-6/day week exercise routine). And we can’t get food off the brain. Why? Maybe we aren’t meeting all our energy needs.

A prime example: Insatiable sugar cravings. Where do those come from? Often times, when we aren’t getting enough balance (including protein, fats and veggies at each meal, along with plenty of water) our body relies upon sugar and carbohydrates as its primary source of fuel. When this happens, we are more susceptible to blood sugar highs and lows. When your body is in a “low,” it craves sugar.

Having balance is the key with all of these examples.

3. Poor Digestion.

Ever heard of the brain-gut connection? When we have poor digestion, we impact our brain function, and vice versa. When we are super stressed or anxious, our digestion is affected. Digestion is critical for absorbing all the nutrients you eat which, in turn, power your brain. When digestion is “off,” our tendency to obsess about food or use food to cope with mental stress and anxiety heightens. Constipation, bloating, allergies, gas after meals, skin breakouts, GERD, IBS, and autoimmune conditions are all indicators digestions may be off.

4. Habit.

Habits are powerful. In an almost Pavlovian way, your relationship with food can become a habit, something you don’t think about twice. You may binge and purge. Or, you always turn over the labels of foods to check the calories. Or, every time you travel home to see your family, you overeat, because it’s “what you do together.”

5. Not Eating Enough.

Are you eating enough? Perhaps, on paper, you think you are. Maybe your smartphone app tells you that you are. So why the heck are you still hungry or thinking about food all the time? Chances are, your version of healthy is not the same as your body’s version. You may not like to hear this now, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by:

  • Counting your calories meticulously
  • Sticking to 1200-1500 calories every day
  • Daily running as your fitness routine
  • Avoiding fat (or counting that quarter of an avocado as your fat for the day)
  • Avoiding starchy carbs
  • Fearing bananas and other fruits
  • Not allowing yourself to eat after 8pm or restricting all day, then binging at night
  • Purging foods that are not on your “good list”
  • Restricting your food intake to see how little you can get by with in a day
  • Weighing and measuring your food—and not budging outside those lines (even when you feel hungry)

But, you tell yourself, isn’t that what I am supposed to do to be fit and healthy? Reality check: No. You’ve been lied to. If you aren’t getting enough food, your body will tell you. That’s when obsessive thoughts and disordered behaviors with food creep in, not to mention a slowed metabolism.

6. Escape.

Food is an easy, exciting, low-cost, and low-risk adventure. It is an escape we can take when we need to get away. Whether you are stressed, worried, anxious, or feel out of control, food is a distraction and “feel-good” experience in the moment. But your food vacation and stress relief will be temporary.

These are some of the ways you might be able to “get over it.” Knowing why you struggle can help you get past the obsessive thoughts. Although this list is not extensive, these are some common ways the struggle with food presents itself for the 75% of women who confront obsessive thoughts and disordered eating habits. Awareness of these factors can be helpful in getting over some of these issues.