I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fallen into emotional eating at least once in their lives. Ever eaten birthday cake even though you weren’t actually hungry? Yeah, I thought so.
Unlike many others in the nutrition space, I don’t think all emotional eating is bad. I think it’s okay to eat emotionally sometimes. I use the example above to illustrate that. Maybe you’re not actually hungry, but you’re at your cousin’s birthday and Grandma made her faaaaamous chocolate cake, and you want to have some for the memories. Or maybe you just got fired from your job and your boyfriend broke up with you and your car broke down. You had a damn DAY! So you get a big chocolate sundae and a chick flick and you have your moment.
There are times when emotional eating is okay, and a part of being human in the 21st century. Maybe it wasn’t part of our culture in our caveman days, but it is a part of modern culture, and once in awhile isn’t going to hurt you. Sometimes you need some chocolate to feel better. Life is meant to be lived.
Emotional eating is a problem, though, when it becomes a pattern. Emotional eating is a problem when you use it as your regular coping mechanism instead of dealing with your real problems and facing your emotions. It’s an issue if you’re regularly eating to the point of discomfort, feeling guilty afterwards about what you ate, and / or feeling like it’s starting to control your life. When it turns from a “once in a while” thing to an “I’m eating every night because I’m bored and don’t want to face my emotions” thing, it’s time to definitely start shifting that pattern. This type of emotional eating often has a deeper root cause that needs to be addressed at its core to fully overcome it, and I recommend working with a professional to really work through those underlying roots.
That being said, sometimes we eat emotionally simply because we aren’t being mindful. Maybe we do know how to face our emotions, self-soothe in better ways, or satisfy what we’re really looking for, but we just aren’t being mindful – so we turn to food for a quick fix. This is where the art of mindful eating comes in. We live in a fast-paced world, and sometimes all we need to do is slow down and listen.
There are many ways to approach mindful eating, and different strategies work for different people. I wanted to share what works for me when I want to check in with myself and see if I’m eating because my body needs it, or if I’m eating just because I’m not being mindful. Mindful eating is a lifelong practice, and I think it’s important everyone has a tool in their toolbelt that really works for them. You know… for when it’s late at night…and you’ve had a long day…and you’ve already had dinner but aren’t sure if you should go for that Nada Moo you have in the freezer…
To practice mindful eating, I like to pause, take a breath, and then ask myself a few simple but powerful questions to figure out if I need / want more food or not. You could always go for the classic, “Would I eat a plate of broccoli right now?” question, but if you’re weird like me, that question isn’t all that helpful because you already think broccoli is delicious. I can mindlessly eat broccoli as easily as I can mindlessly eat chocolate.
These are the questions I like to ask myself to practice mindful eating.
- Am I hungry?
This is an obvious question, but it’s important. Sometimes we turn to food even when we know the answer to this is no – we just haven’t stopped to think about it. This forces you to slow down and tune in. If your answer is yes, move onto the next question.
- Is my brain hungry?This is when you think about your brain specifically. Are you hungry just because you’re thinking about food? Is your brain actually telling you it’s hungry? Or is it just jumping to the part where you go to the kitchen out of habit? Is it a stress response, a habit, or an actual need?
- Is my body hungry?This is where you tune into your body, specifically. Focus right on your stomach. Do you feel physically full? Do you feel physically hungry in your body? If yes, then you’re probably hungry. If not, then maybe you return back to the previous question, and you think about if your brain is hungry because it needs fuel, or if it’s just telling you it’s hungry as a stress response. Tuning into your actual stomach helps you determine if the signal from your bran was just a thought, or if it’s an actual need.
There have been so many times that I ask myself these questions, thinking I’m really hungry, and by the time I get to question #3, I realize I’m not. When I think about how my stomach actually feels and realize it’s physically full, that forces my brain to slow down enough to process that feeling, and then my brain stops telling me I’m hungry. Suddenly it tells me I’m full. This is why it’s so helpful to pause and tune into what your body really needs.
That being said, there are also many times I ask these 3 questions and the answer is yes to all, or yes to just one, so I still eat. If my brain and body are actually hungry, obviously I will eat. If my brain isn’t hungry but my body is, I will eat. If my body isn’t hungry but my brain tells me it is hungry even after processing that my stomach is full, I usually eat more food. (Physical hunger isn’t the only sign that we need fuel.) Either way, identifying where your desire for more food is really coming from helps you make a more informed decision that you feel confident about.
The point is that these questions are just one tool that can be helpful for you to successfully practice mindful eating. Your version of mindful eating might look different than someone else’s, but at the end of the day, the best way we can honor our bodies is to take the time to pause and tune into our bodies, minds, and hunger signals and respect those needs. Slowing down is the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves.
The questions are simple and seemingly obvious, but they’ve been very helpful for me in the past, and they are very helpful for my clients. Many of my clients like to write these down in their phones to look at in the evening as a simple reminder. It helps them stay in tune with their bodies to figure out if that nighttime snack is necessary or not! I encourage you to try out these questions the next time you’ve already eaten but think you want more food.
Do you have a favorite tool for practicing mindful eating? Share below!