What’s your relationship with food? Are you a comfort eater?

Linda Spangle, author of “100 days of weight loss” says emotional eating is the top reason that diets fail, due to the pattern that has been established where “every time you feel anything – sadness, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, even happiness – you turn to food”.

I have to confess I have a strong relationship with food. If you know me, you know I get cranky if I don’t eat at regular intervals. I am one of those people who “lives to eat” not who “eats to live”. I love food! I can also recognise how I use food as a reward, and as comfort, and to fill an emptiness when I am bored.

On reflection, I can remember this approach to food was instilled in me at an early age.

  • “You can’t have your  pudding until you have eaten your xxxx”.
  • Also, “if you are good you can have a xxx” which was usually a cream cake, or other yummy food reward.

Funnily enough I don’t remember the reward being, “you can have an apple” or “reward yourself with some carrot sticks”.

And I have to admit that I have used the same approach at meal-times with my grand-daughter, thus perpetuating the cycle. I have a sweet tooth and chocolate, and chocolate cravings are my downfall.

Geneen Roth, the author of “Women, Food and God” says “food can act like a drug… and can take the edge off whatever is going on, similar to the way a drink does to alcoholics”. However she adds that this is a temporary fix at best, and “after you have finished eating, you still have to deal with the problem”. And if you binge eat, this can make you feel much worse in the long run,when you beat yourself up because you feel guilty about what you have just done.

When we eat carbohydrates high in sugar our body releases the brain chemical dopamine, which stimulates the brain’s pleasure centre, which encourages us to eat them again. And if we aren’t craving carbohydrates we may instead be craving sugar and fat – over consumption of which ups other brain chemicals linked to pleasure and euphoria.

The patterns of our cravings are linked to the feelings we have come to associate with a type of food, and we want to rekindle those feelings. If we recollect happy family times as a child eating pasta, or roast dinners, it is likely that we will want to pile these foods on our plates as adults.

If cuddling up to Mum when you needed cheering up as a child also included a bowl of ice cream, or pudding and custard [my favourite is rhubarb crumble], its likely that this is what you will reach for when your job in later life gets too stressful.

How can you change these emotional eating patterns? Do you need to?

The key is to break up the automatic connection between food and mood, and to learn to identify when you are eating due to reasons that have nothing to do with how empty your stomach is. Then look at re-training yourself to get pleasure from other things, such as exercise and friendship.

Here’s some strategies you can try to re-educate your mind :

  • identify and rate your hunger – get into the habit of differentiating between physical and emotional hunger to be aware of when you may be eating for the wrong reasons. Try scoring how hungry you are on a scale if 1-5 before you eat, and check whether you are really hungry or just craving a specific type of food. Ideally, with practice, you will be more aware of eating for emotional reasons, and you can slam on the brakes.
  • make time work for you – my mother believed that you should chew every mouthful 40 times! – I’m not sure I could ever be so measured, but it’s much better not to rush you food and savour every mouthful. Another timely strategy is to wait say 20-30 minutes before you eat, if you get a food craving – to put a buffer between you and the food. If this is difficult for you to achieve, put other obstacles in your own way –  don’t keep the snacks you crave in the house or at work. Keep small squares of chocolate in the freezer which need to thaw before you can eat them.
  • vary your treats– gradually replace the high calorie treats with a healthier alternative, go for a bowl of berries with low fat yogurt instead of cheesecake. Also make sure your main meals are well balanced with a mix of high quality carbohydrates, including beans, whole grains and fruits, as well as healthy fats including nuts, olive oil, eggs and shellfish, to help stabilise your mood and dampen cravings.
  • buddy up – try to improve your relationships and your live interactions so that you don’t succumb to food to boost your spirits. Social networking, meeting up with family and friends, “Phone a friend” can all contribute to a strategy to wean yourself off these killer food compulsions.
  • get ahead of yourself – when you are not feeling stressed  explore some new tactics that you can use, instead of trying to find a food substitute when you are in a crisis. Make a list of heathy things you can do – maybe learn to meditate regularly, start going to a tai chi or yoga class, or go swimming or walk your dogs. Treat yourself to a long bubble bath soak, watch a soppy soap. If you get into the habit of doing these things on good days, you can feel confident to turn to them on the bad days when doubts and cravings strike.
  • consider the consequence – give yourself a good reason NOT to eat for comfort. Recall those feelings of feeling “stuffed”, the guilt you feel when you succumb, and this can be an effective negative reinforcement to stop your craving in its tracks.
  • ditch the negative self talk – let’s face it, there’s a good chance you will slip up, but it isn’t the end of the world, so don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be so hard on yourself that you reach for another high calorie treat. Keep things in perspective! Accept that you’ve made a mistake and move on.

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You can find more about me at www.JudithSunleyCoaching.com or check out my facebook business page https://www.facebook.com/#!/jas1955 or follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/JudithSunley

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