I had a client who recently walked into my office and said to me, “How do I stop eating?”...as if this was a serious option. As I began to explore her world I discovered that she was compulsively driven to food. She felt completely out of control and felt that her life was filled with chaos, guilt, and shame. She was stuck in the pattern of emotional eating.
As I talked her away from the ledge and began to explain to her that she was caught up in feeding her emotions (not her body’s physical need for food), she began to soften and relax. She listened intently as I explained the difference between our thinking mind (AKA the ego, the voices in our head, or the "little devil" on our shoulder), and our observing self (who we really are beneath it all). I explained that her journey toward peace with food, toward obtaining the body that she wanted, and even the life that she wanted, began with paying attention not just to the food she ate, but to the thoughts that she was thinking on daily basis.
Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger
So often we eat not because we are hungry, but because we are trying to feed or soothe our emotions, or we are trying to avoid something. The great news is that when you discover that your physical hunger is capable of being satisfied, you can sense that perhaps your emotional hunger can also be fulfilled.
To begin to separate physical hunger from emotional hunger we need to experience what physical hunger is like. To stop emotional eating, you must learn to look for your own physical signs of hunger, your own body’s way of telling you that it needs food. Everyone’s hunger signals are different. What are yours? What do they feel like? Do you get queasy? Does your stomach growl and cramp a bit? Does the thought of doing this bring up fear? Anxiety?
Here are some helpful tips for beginning to learn your own signs:
1. Explore your hunger
There is no mistaking your body’s hunger signal. Contrary to what some people claim, we all have one. When we sit with hunger and explore it, we find that there are many different levels of hunger from mild, to moderate, to intense hunger.
- Mild hunger can be fun to play with. Your tummy may growl a bit, but you may still feel light and energetic.
- Moderate hunger becomes a bit more demanding and may not like being played with. You may feel queasy or nauseous while your digestive juices begin to gurgle and tell you its time to eat.
- Intense hunger tells you that you need to eat and you need to eat now. You may feel lightheaded, nauseous, and mental clarity becomes lost as you struggle to think clearly. Do you know of someone who gets really "hangry" when they don’t eat? Often when we wait too long to eat, this lack of clarity can drive us to binge.
As you begin to explore your different levels of hunger, if you need some extra guidance, check out The Good Decisions Hunger Scale.
Learn to trust that you will not starve, and your body is capable of letting you know when the time is right to eat and when it is not. It may seem like your body has betrayed you in the past but it has not. Your body will not forsake you; it can be trusted. When we remove thoughts and emotions from the eating process, it becomes simple...the body is hungry... you feed it... it's satisfied.
2. Enjoy Your Food
Often times we take food way too seriously. Instead of looking at "eating only when we are hungry" as work, let's make a shift. Let’s look at this as a game; a game that involves laughing at the crazy thoughts in our heads that tell us life is not worth living without that bowl of ice cream. A game that returns us back to our humanity as we enjoy being humans who need to eat to survive! Really, food is not the enemy. It's our whirlwind of thoughts that we have to watch out for.
Make the decision to intentionally enjoy food. Some of us don’t have this problem, but those of us who face guilt and shame have come to look at food as something that should not be enjoyed. We often look at it as a barrier that stands in the way of becoming the person we really want to be. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, making peace with food and learning how to enjoy it again is often what enables individuals to overcome fear and doubt, and become exactly who they want to be— a person who is at peace with both food and their own body.
Remember that the first step of how to stop eating emotionally is to tune into your body and recognize when it is hungry. When it is hungry, feed it without guilt or shame... no matter what you eat!
3. Stop When Your Body is Satisfied
The beauty of overcoming emotional eating lies in its simplicity. Listening to your satiation signal is no different than tuning in to your hunger signal. It just requires you to pay attention. If you have trouble focusing on your own, take a look at our Hunger Check for more assistance on how to go about developing body awareness.
As you become more aware, you may notice that you receive many different signals depending on when you choose to stop eating. Here's what you should be on the lookout for:
- Your body may send a mild satiation signal. When you receive this, you may notice that the food doesn’t taste as good as it did when you first started. You may still feel light and energetic.
- If you continue to eat you may receive a stronger signal that your body has had enough. You may experience fullness. You may begin to feel heavy, sleepy, or lethargic.
- If you continue to eat you may experience discomfort. Your stomach may feel distended, gassy or bloated as your body struggles to digest the large meal. A heavy, sleepy, mental fog may descend as your body shuts down other functions to deal with the large meal you have ingested. You may hear it yell at you loud and clear, “Hey! Thanks for the meal, but I am done! Hello? Did you not get my previous message?”
Most importantly, if you do continue to eat to the point of fullness, don’t beat yourself up. Be gentle with yourself and again, don’t take this all so seriously or think that you will never overeat again. You will! We all do! It's all about making a conscious effort to try and try again.
That Annoying Little Devil
The funniest part of this game is when you are in the middle of an absolutely delicious meal, and your body tells you it has enjoyed the experience, but is now done. You’re sitting there with the rest of this meal in front of you and all of a sudden, this little devil pops onto your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Keep eating! It's so good!”, or "How could you waste this?!" Then the little angel on the other shoulder scrambles to the other ear to whisper, “No! Don’t listen to him! You're full! If you keep eating you'll feel sick!” You feel utterly stuck. Often times, without thinking, we usually side with the little devil, and then the regret sinks in after the fact.
Well, never fear because you can vaporize that little devil simply by bringing your attention to him and what he is saying. Ask yourself if those thoughts are even true. Play the devil's advocate and acknowledge that you can easily take home your food in a doggie bag. Then you get to enjoy it tomorrow too! When you observe your thoughts, you don't buy into them or attach to them. Then they have no power over you and you are able to make a conscious decision.
It's important to try not to judge your thoughts. When we struggle with our thoughts and try to push them away, or pretend they don't exist, it just makes things worse for us and we suffer. Thoughts arise just as your heart beats. Just like your lungs expand and contract, thoughts will arise and fade. Accept this and be entertained by your thoughts instead of believing in them, attaching to them, or taking them so seriously. You've got to admit, the thought that life is not worth living without this particular bowl of ice cream, in this very moment.... it's pretty hilarious!
The Zen of Eating
It's an hour after breakfast and you feel the urge to snack. Rather than instinctively grabbing for a granola bar, you decide to check in with your body. What happens next? If your physical body is hungry, you eat. If it is not, you don't eat. Simple right?
Yes, but just don't forget to take the next step. If your physical body is not hungry, see what it is you are trying to feed, soothe, or avoid. If you don't acknowledge this, it is likely you'll go ahead and eat the granola bar regardless. So pause for a moment... what need are you try to fill? Maybe you realize that you're actually just really stressed about an upcoming meeting and you are trying to dampen your anxiety with food. That's a pretty clear message right there! You realize that all you really need is a peaceful walk outside. You are free!
When you are no longer driven chaotically by the compulsions of your thinking mind, you gain the ability to tap into your inner guidance. This is what will always take you toward the health that you want, the body that you want, and the life that you want. How fabulous is this?
You too can find freedom from emotional eating! It all starts with a single step.