Why Are You Eating?

The primary place where I still deal with emotional eating is when I’m feeling overwhelmed or frustrated when I’m on deadline. The stress from being under the gun makes me want to chew.

My desire is to reach for crunchy foods like popcorn and nuts. Sometimes the desire for a specific food can be so strong, it feels like I must give in or I will never be able to concentrate again.

According to Linda Spangle, author of “Life is Hard, Food is Easy,” this is a classic example of “Head Eating.” Stressful feelings like anger, resentment, and irritation often trigger a specific desire for a chewy or crunchy food.

Eating to cope with hollow or restless feelings like boredom, depression, or loneliness is “Heart Eating,” and is where an unspecific craving for comforting, soft and creamy foods is experienced. Think of standing in front of the fridge wondering what it is you want. The answer might be something like ice cream, candy, mashed potatoes, or macaroni and cheese.

Neither of these types of emotional eating is choosing delicious and healthy foods that will feed and nourish your body. You may tell yourself you are eating because you are hungry, or that you love food, but you’re not.

The true taste of food only lasts for the first few bites. After that, you no longer taste the deliciousness. If you can’t stop after a few bites, there is something more going on.

A quick way to tell if your hunger is because your stomach needs food to function, or is a desire in your mouth or head is to ask yourself if you’re hungry enough to eat an apple or orange. If one of those won’t do, ask yourself, “Why am I eating.”

When you can identify the situation—for me, stressful deadlines—then look for the emotions. I can feel overwhelmed with not enough time to get everything done that I need to, and frustration when people don’t call me back or get me the information that I need by when I need it. (They should, of course, recognize that I am on deadline and therefore cater to my needs! This is me rolling my eyes at myself.)

Once you realize that eating won’t change the problem—and may actually make it worse with feelings of guilt and self-hatred—look for what you can do instead. Note: this is easier done before you find yourself in the situation that will again trigger emotional eating.

Create a plan of attack. The next time that situation or feeling comes up, what can you do besides eat?

For me, I chew a lot of gum. (That’s a bit of a crutch to get me past the emotions, but it’s not eating, so I’ll take it.) I also take deep breaths, or take 10 to 15 minutes to meditate. (It can be really hard to make myself take that time, but it pays off in spades with how productive I am afterwards.) Typically these things work, but if all else fails, I do have some bags of 100-calorie popcorn on hand. They aren’t a great nutritional choice, but they won’t undo all my exercise and great eating up until that point, either.

How can you remind yourself to pay attention to why you are eating? When the reason is to soothe stress or deaden an uncomfortable emotion, what can you do to solve the problem without food? How much better do you feel about yourself afterwards?

Together we can do it!