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How to Cope with Emotional Eating: 12 Tips for Eating During Quarantine


If you are like most Americans, you have probably been eating more food now that you are home during the quarantine. During any “normal” extended time off, you might consider how being at home might give you the opportunity to do more meal preparation, baking, or even experimenting with new recipes. However, my guess is that your mind is probably not focused on that. In fact, you may feel like you have less time or energy to cook. Eating quick and easy meals is a lifesaver after a long day of home-schooling or back to back Zoom meetings. And, quick and easy foods mean more processed food.

Most of us know that processed food is bad for us and is even addictive in some cases. Foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat release opioids and dopamine which cause us to feel calmed after eating those foods. Not only are these foods addictive, but we turn to these types of foods when we are stressed out. Evolutionarily speaking, humans are primed to seek foods high in carbohydrates and sugar when stressed. Not to mention, we are in the midst of a global catastrophic event that does not seem to have an end date in sight. We have no control over what is being done politically or nationally, and stress tends to rise when we feel that we are in an unpredictable or uncontrollable situation. Food is one of the few things we have control of right now, and if we feel like we can take control of just ONE thing, it makes us feel better.

Although it might be easier to give in to our cravings, we know that in the long run it won’t help us. I have included some helpful tips from various resources that I offer my clients. Many of these tips come from a fantastic book called “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

1. Do not start a fad “diet” during this time. First of all, diets don’t work. They are hard to stick to and create more stress. It also causes you to develop rigid food rules that are more detrimental than helpful. Creating an all-or-nothing mindset about food can lead to feeling guilt or shame after eating the so-called “bad” food.

2. Keep a food diary. Self-monitoring is a great way to see what you are doing and notice any patterns. It also has a sneaky way of causing us to change our behaviors. If you would like a food diary that I created, please send an email and I'd be happy to share one with you! I have several clients who enjoy using them and have found them to be very helpful.

3. Check in with yourself. Do a brief body scan. Notice any tension in your body. Now take a moment and see if you can feel your heart beating. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and tune in to your body. Pay attention to any sensations or thoughts that come up.

4. Now, ask yourself if you are physically hungry. Physical hunger feels differently than emotional hunger. It comes on slowly and is not specific to certain food. You can feel your stomach growling and it’s likely been a while since you last ate. Emotional eating is usually considered to be a “craving” and comes on suddenly. It can be obsessive and may have strong emotions associated with it (i.e., sadness, anger, boredom, happiness). Emotional eating is often mindless, meaning that we aren’t fully present and enjoying the tastes, textures, and temperature of the food.

5. Broccoli Test. If you aren’t sure if you are physically hungry, ask yourself if you would eat a vegetable, such as broccoli. If you are, you probably physically hungry. If not, you are probably experiencing an emotional craving.

6. Decide to eat, don’t react. Once you’ve established what type of hunger you are experiencing, make a conscious decision to eat. If you’re hungry, eat! If you’re not physically hungry, but still want a snack, then make a conscious decision to eat something. If you want chips, count out one serving of chips based on the nutritional information on the label. When we have external cues to stop eating, we are less likely to overeat.

7. Be aware of your emotional state. Notice how you are feeling right now. Are you sad, angry, bored, or tired? Are you eating in response to a negative emotion? Do you hope that you will feel differently after eating something? Some people feel like they can fill an emotional void by eating comfort food, but the truth is that emotional voids can only be filled by self-love.

8. Be aware of your hunger level. Try to rate your hunger level on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 5 (absolutely starving). Are you able to take a moment and pause before eating, or are you so ravenously hungry that you feel like you may not be able to stop eating once you start? Typically, if your hunger is a 2 or below, I would suggest waiting a bit before eating. Just don’t wait until it gets to a 5!

9. Be aware of your physical surroundings. When you eat, are you eating because other people are eating? Are you eating alone? Are you eating out of the carton or container in which the food was from originally? Are you eating in a dark room or a well-lit room? Are you eating in bed?

10. Eat mindfully. After you have chosen what to eat, take a moment to be present with your food. Do a mindful eating exercise. Observe the details of the food before you consume it. What is the texture? Rough? Smooth? Wrinkly? What is the temperature? Hot, cold, lukewarm, room temperature? What is the sensation you feel when the food touches your lips? What about the feeling in your mouth when you take the first bite and begin to chew your food? Notice what it is about the food that you enjoy or don’t enjoy. Eat slowly and mindfully.

11. Be aware of your fullness level. Once again, check in with yourself. Rate your fullness on a scale from 0 (not at all full, still hungry) to 5 (overly full, feeling sick and uncomfortable). Notice if you feel nauseous or have a stomachache. Perhaps you feel various emotions after you have eaten. Maybe you feel satisfied and happy, or maybe you feel guilty, depressed, or ashamed. Either way, just notice those feelings. Reflect on those feelings and take note of it in your food diary.

12. Be compassionate with yourself. If you made it through this entire exercise, congratulate yourself! Even if it wasn’t perfect, just know that you did something positive for yourself. If you felt like you overate or snuck in a “bad” food, write it down and process it, but don’t ruminate about it. It’s over. Now, go on with your day. And, when you feel hungry again, you have an opportunity to make difference choices. You can either eat to heal your body, or you can eat to cause inflammation or feed a disease. Which do you choose?

If you would like any more tips on making healthy choices or behavioral changes during this time, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Resources:

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. St. Martin’s Press. New York: New York.

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