Recently, I wrote an article about emotional eating. At the time, it felt important to recognize the mental, emotional and social challenges we were faced with as we collectively navigated life in a pandemic...challenges and stresses that often drive us to the kitchen looking for comfort or stimulation.
More than a month later, this conversation may be even more relevant as an uprising has sprung around us in Minneapolis since that last article. More challenges. More stress and uncertainty.
Here's a brief recap of what we know about emotional eating:
Our brains respond to foods we find pleasurable with a dose of dopamine (our "feel good" neurotransmitter). This brings us satisfaction, calm, comfort...really, dopamine is the balm to any negative feeling! So really - truly - emotional eating works.
People are motivated to come see me by health challenges or goals they have. Emotional hardship definitely makes the list of things they want to work on. I work with folks who experience depression and anxiety, emotional states that are often triggered by moments of acute stress or struggle. And many of my clients effectively use emotional eating to soothe these negative feelings.
While we see a chemical benefit to eating comforting food in response to a negative experience or emotion, ultimately we know that ice cream is not the solution to loneliness. Corn chips cannot entertain us out of our boredom. And no amount of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will bring us back to our childhood where a caring adult was telling us everything was going to be ok.
Emotional eating also poses the threat of numbing us to our emotions or aiding us in dissociating from what we're experiencing. Eating instead of dealing with our feelings head on isn't going to solve the problem of that loneliness. Or the boredom. Or the insecurity and disappointment of being an adult and finding out that everything is not ok.
Instead of eating when we feel these things, I propose experiencing them. For you in the back, yes I am suggesting that you experience the yuck. Keep in mind that you may need some support with this. Before making a choice to actively heal, get yourself a counselor or other mental wellness support to aid you through the hardship of feeling your feelings.
When you're ready to proceed, give this a try:
- Make a list of all the ways you can soothe yourself that don't include food. How do you stimulate yourself when you're bored? What options do you have to socialize when you're lonely? How can you soothe yourself when you're disappointed? Here's my list:
Bored = go for a walk, color, read fiction, exercise
Lonely = video chat with a friend, make a date with my wife, start a Macro Polo convo
Disappointed = write all about it in my journal
- Make a meal plan. This doesn't have to be a "eat this" at "this time" kind of meal plan. It could be as simple as "I'm going to eat breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner." Plan out when you are eating...and by doing so you will also plan when you are not eating.
- When you find yourself browsing the kitchen for a nibble outside of that plan, PAUSE. Check in with yourself by asking, "Do I have physical needs for food or am do I want to feed something else in me?" If you are physically hungry, eat! If you are looking for food for a loneliness/boredom/disappointment bandaid, proceed to #4.
- Reference the list you made in step #1. Look for something that jumps out at you and says, "Oo, yes please!" And then, do that. Turn around, walk out of your kitchen and do that thing that actually addresses your emotional need and will help you heal.
- Whether you're successful with #4 or not, let it go. This is a mindfulness practice. My favorite part about mindfulness is the practice of "non-judgment." Mindfulness is not about being perfect or nailing it on the first try. It's called a "practice" for good reason!
When we practice mindfulness we become better at being ourselves. We can be more honest and reflective, which means we are better partners, better parents and just all around have more ease and peace. We bring that ease and peace into the world we live in.
This is what self-care looks like. It's not always sexy. Sometimes, it's really hard work. But it's hard work that pays off. It's hard work that brings healing. And who knows what beautiful things you'll create with your hands and your heart if you let yourself grieve and be angry and transform hurt into health.
Jesse Haas is a heart-centered and deeply intuitive nutritionist. She approaches each client with a holistic perspective, taking into consideration not just the mind, body and spirit, but also life schedule, stresses and personal preferences to curate a nutrition plan that is unique to the individual. Jesse shows up as a partner in her client’s wellness, not the boss. She combines nutritional counseling and whole foods culinary education to help her clients understand why they’re not feeling well and how to change that one meal at a time. Jesse offers skill-building classes focused on meal planning and cooking, as well as group wellness programs for specific health goals and conditions. Jesse is co-founder of Wellness Minneapolis.