Mind & Spirit

You may be emotionally eating. Here's how to avoid it

Why you may be emotionally eating and how to avoid it

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Mind & Spirit

You may be emotionally eating. Here's how to avoid it

The holidays can wreak havoc on your wallet and your waistline. This season, don't let your emotions snowball until they get the better of you.

What is emotional eating? 
"It's the act of using food to cope with an unpleasant or negative emotion when the sensation of physical hunger is not present," says Rachel Molenda, a Toronto-based emotional-and-disordered-eating coach and certified holistic nutritionist.

Determine your trigger
Not sure if you fall into the stress-eating or mindless-snacking camp? Keep an emotional-eating journal (similar to a food diary), where you note what you eat, when you eat and how you feel (bored, stressed, lonely) before and after each meal, suggests Molenda. After journaling for a few days, a pattern should crystallize and provide insight into your emotional triggers and the connections between your mood and food.


Once the tree is trim­med and the gifts are wrapped, we're all for a soupçon of hygge (the Danish concept of getting cozy). But do you find it difficult to wind down, or are you easily bored with mundane tasks? "We're conditioned to be constantly stimulated or busy," says Molenda. "The moment we have free time, we don't know how to fill the vacuum, so we load up on food to take its place or bring a burst of pleasure to humdrum tasks." 


* Ask yourself, "Am I physically hungry?" Rate your hunger on a scale from zero to 10, with zero being hangry and 10 being post-buffet satiated. You may need to eat if you rate your hunger as a four or less. If you rate it as a five or more, you may not be really hungry. Note how you're feeling mentally, emotionally and physically when the urge to eat strikes. 

* Make room for more fun. Break up a boring to-do list by taking a yoga class or going ice-skating.

If stress-eating sugar cookies is your go-to to get through the holiday rush, there might be something physiological behind it. "When we're stressed, our adrenal glands produce cortisol—the hormone responsible for increasing appetite—because the brain has sent a message that we're in fight-or-flight mode," says Molenda. When you're in this frenzied state, you might crave high-carbohydrate foods that could fuel this feeling to fight or flee.


* Deep breathing is one of the best and quickest ways to shift your body into rest-and-digest mode. 

* Book a session with a natural health-care practitioner to develop a protocol to support your adrenal glands.

* Be more descriptive about what you're feeling, which can make it easier to take action. Shift your thinking from I'm stressed to I'm stressed because I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list and worry I won't get it all done. Create a plan of action to deal with the cause of the stress.

Is the most wonderful time of the year actually the worst? For many, the festive season can evoke feelings of loneliness and melancholy, which might stem from the loss of a loved one or a failed relationship. "Most of us have been taught to remove the feeling of pain the moment it strikes and are not content to sit with our own discomfort," says Molenda. "Food is often used to reduce the intensity of a low-spirited mood or to provide instant pleasure." However, the temporary relief you receive while drowning your sorrows in a tub of candy cane ice cream could later result in feelings of guilt and shame.


* Acknowledge your sadness. This may be an uncomfortable practice, but it's crucial to address what you need and why. 

* Connect with a friend to hug it out.

* Practise some self-care: Take a bubble bath or Zen out with a mini meditation.

If your idea of yuletide spirit is consuming a gingerbread house reminiscent of your childhood traditions, then it might be time to honour those memories using a different method. "We learn from a young age to seek food as a form of comfort when it's used to console us during moments of sadness, loneliness or discomfort," says Molenda. Whether it's to soothe a boo-boo or a breakup, certain foods, such as cookies and milk, can hold symbolic and sentimental meaning that we use to fill a void during a highly emotional time. 


* Get to the root of the problem by asking yourself what you're feeling in an effort to identify what isn't being fulfilled and what you need.

* Journaling or talking with family or friends can help soothe hurt feelings or sad memories.

Along with the joy and the merriment, Christmastime can be a period of frustration and blame. The holiday season is ripe for bringing out irritation or rage, in the form of a small misunderstanding or a full-blown family feud. "Many people carry anger with them without realizing it," says Molenda. "Often, those who have a hard time expressing how they feel will turn to food. The anger may trigger the eating, which can intensify the emotion with a sense of disappointment for poor eating choices."


* Physically release the anger. Try punching or screaming into a pillow, which may help relieve some of the fury. 

* List the things that are annoying you or making you see red. You might be surprised by the actual root cause. 

* After acknowledging the source of your annoyance, if you're truly hungry, be mindful when snacking.

Whether you're craving something salty or sweet, Kiki Athanassoulias, a Toronto-based healthy-eating coach, shares some food swaps that are sure to satisfy. 

For boredom
Before you have a snack attack, assess if you're truly hungry or if you're just thirsty. First, drink a glass of water.

For stress
Instead of scarfing down your dinner in two bites, have a meal that takes time to eat, like a bowl of hot soup.

For sadness
If you have a case of the holiday blues, it might be a sign you're seeking dopamine, the "feel-good" hormone. Rather than going elbow-deep into a box of chocolates, toss two table­spoons of raw cacao nibs into a smoothie or some yogurt; raw cacao contains phenethylamine, a natural compound that helps increase endorphins and other pleasure-inducing neurochemicals in the brain. 

For discomfort 
Opt for lighter, more nourishing choices that still provide the comfort you crave—mashed cauliflower in place of potatoes on top of a shepherd's pie, for example.

For anger 
Practise the art of delayed gratification. Give the craving 10 minutes to pass, then if you're actually hungry, create a calming experience with a cup of chamomile tea and a healthy snack, for instance.




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Mind & Spirit

You may be emotionally eating. Here's how to avoid it