This post was written by guest contributor and cooking enthusiast, Amanda Wilks. You can find more from Amanda, including articles on healthy eating, kitchen tips, and cookware at her website, TheKitchenAdvisor.com.
Over-indulgence is an easy trap to fall prey to when food is readily available and there are few, if any, immediate consequences to over-eating. Beyond pangs of guilt, it can be hard to even realize the damage done by emotional eating until it starts to build up through unwanted fat, tooth decay, or damage to the cardiovascular system.
When eating becomes your first response to stress, boredom or any number of negative emotions, dealing with those emotions through food can lead to downright unhealthy habits. Here are five steps to overcoming that unhealthy reflex.
1. Recognize Your Stress Eating Habits
As with all journeys of self-awareness, overcoming unhealthy eating habits requires you to recognize and acknowledge they exist. If you’ve grown accustomed to eating constantly throughout the day, however, it may be more difficult to pin down when emotional triggers lead you to eat. To identify those moments, use what’s called the “broccoli test” to figure out whether you are eating because you are hungry, or because you are stressed.
Before you eat, ask yourself if broccoli sounds like an appetizing snack. If it doesn’t, you might not be very hungry after all—certain crave-able foods nourish our emotional hunger even when we aren’t physically hungry. In this way, the broccoli test helps you recognize the moments when your emotions are looking for food more than your body. Spend a few days writing down what you eat and when—even if you go ahead and eat to quell negative emotions—but ensure you note down the incident that triggered your emotional eating for ease of future reference.
2. Familiarize Yourself with Smart Snacking
Once you recognize your personal eating habits and what drives you to eat emotionally it becomes easier to find what foods need replacing in your go-to snacking routine. Commonly, sugary foods are the first thing we reach for despite their generally low nutritional content. It may not be as simple as replacing brownies with raw carrots, but there are small changes you can make to help get you over the sugar cravings.
For example, making a smoothie can satisfy the need for sugar while also providing an opportunity to add vegetables and other healthy options to the mix in a way that is more appealing than going cold turkey. For quick and satisfying results, do some quick research and choose the best option that meets your needs. Sneaking vegetables into your indulgences is one of the quickest ways to start turning bad habits into smarter choices.
3. Practice Your Mindfulness
With healthier options at the ready and an understanding of what causes your cravings, the hardest step is staying on top of your mental state and judging when you may feel the urge to reach for the cookie jar once more. Mindfulness requires attention to your thoughts and a fairly steady awareness of the world around you, often requiring practice and attention until it becomes second nature.
Above all, mindfulness works best when you take responsibility for your emotions and recognize what causes them, along with how to appropriately respond to them. Negative emotions that lead to unhealthy eating may not be pleasant, but those emotions are conveying a message that should not be ignored. If you’re angry, find out why you feel that way, deal with the source of the anger and allow the feeling to pass. If eating is done mindlessly and only as a response to negative feelings, you not only set the precedent of your eating being a rote task but also run the risk of overlooking important emotional signals in the process.
4. Learn to Deal with Different Emotional States
It’s very difficult to simply know how to react to certain emotions and situations. Staying on top of your mental well-being means taking time to find out how to deal with your triggers in the healthiest way possible. Different emotions can contribute to your cravings and not all of them can be responded to linearly.
Explore your options. If you feel a bout of stress eating around the corner, go outside for a walk. Try your hand at something creative. Take time out of your day to meditate on how you can remove certain stressors from your life. Not every problem can be solved instantaneously but taking time to get away from negative experiences or situations and finding ways to avoid them in the future will ultimately lead to more progress.
5. Don’t Villainize Food
Remember that there is nothing inherently evil about food. Food does not exist to tempt you—in fact, you shouldn’t feel bad for eating things you enjoy. Eating is one of the simplest pleasures a person can experience, and it should be treated as such. Enjoy eating responsibility and ensure what you eat is both good for you and comes at times when you are physically hungry.
Exploring one’s mindfulness and coming to terms with repeat triggers for emotional eating can take a level of self-awareness that doesn’t come easily. Taking the time to recognize why you overeat and how to best fight those urges may take time, but it will be well worth the investment if it leads to better eating choices in the future.