Struggling with overeating? Cool–you’re not alone. Read Part One: Habit and then head back over here to find out some strategies for getting past the compulsive eating roadblocks.
ROADBLOCK #2: Emotional Eating
“Mindful eating” isn’t a new concept. But just because it’s been around for a while doesn’t mean it’s easy. Part of an addiction (whether it be to food or anything else) is the aspect of comfort or routine. In times of great stress (or even minor stress), our brains make up excuses for why we need to indulge in a certain behavior.
On the chemical level, it’s because our neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that try to keep our mental states in balance, are thrown out of whack. For example, have you ever read one of the million articles published yearly by the major media about how chocolate is a health food because it’s good for, among many other things, endorphin release? That’s an example of comfort food in action: your endorphins (the “feel good” neurotransmitters) are activated by the chemicals in chocolate. So you feel good when you eat it. When you’re stressed, depressed, or feeling low, your brain instinctually remembers the kinds of foods that triggered happiness, and then send you to the pantry in search of more.
At the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I’m being certified as a health coach, the curricula often references “primary foods:” healthy relationships, physical activity, a fulfilling career, and spirituality. If you don’t have these four on lock down, then you’ve got a hole deep inside that can’t be filled with chocolate–but not for lack of trying.
We emotionally eat because we unintentionally misinterpret our brain’s cravings for the “happy” neurotransmitters as cravings for foods that increase “happy” neurotransmitters. We do this misinterpreting because we don’t have the skills, the resources, or the awareness to address the lack of happiness or fulfillment in the “primary foods” areas of our lives–maybe the awareness that our relationships are toxic or the financial freedom to leave a job that’s crushing our souls–but we do have access to the grocery store and the pantry.
I know that I, personally, have struggled with major social anxiety for most of my adult life, and part of that struggle involves building and keeping healthy relationships with friends–in person. Since moving to California, I’ve built up an incredible base of friends through Facebook, Twitter, and the various virtual methods of connecting, but I don’t have many close friends who are in my area. That lack of connection can be very overwhelming at times, and I’ve done my own share of raiding the fruit drawer in my refrigerator for a quick hit (and then another and another and another until I’m so full it hurts) of natural feel-good sugar. Unfortunately, strawberries and grapes are a poor substitute for actual companionship.
If you’re struggling with emotional eating, know that I’m right there with you. I urge you to grab a journal and jot down exactly what you’re feeling when temptation sends you running for the treats or keeps you face deep in cereal until the craving turns to pain. Identify your “nutrient deficiency.” Are you getting enough time engaged in healthy relationships? Do you participate in fun physical activity? Is there an aspect of your career that no longer fulfills you? Do you have a spiritual practice (from religious practice to non-affiliated meditation to just getting lost in a good book)?
Time to get mind-full: Figure out where your primary foods aren’t cutting it, and then resolve to take steps to work on those cravings before you stick your spoon in the coconut butter. (And so will I!)
Which primary foods are you struggling with? What are you going to do to start making some changes to improve those areas?
To be continued…