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From Comfort Food to Comfort Zone: What it Looks Like to Overcome Emotional Eating (and, Yeah, You Can Still Have the Comfort Food)

What does emotional eating look like to you? If you’re conjuring up a vision of Bridget Jones weeping over her gallon of ice cream or Amy Schumer with that cartoonish liter-wine-goblet, you’re right… but also wrong. It’s too easy to view emotional eating as something so extreme that it’s worthy of cultural derision, yet, as human beings, we are programmed to use pleasure as comfort. And food can be (and SHOULD be) pleasurable.

The main thing to understand when it comes to emotional eating is this: it isn’t really about food at all. It’s about managing our emotions, and food is simply the tool we’ve learned to use. It’s not the cravings for comfort food we need to overcome; it’s understanding why we’re seeking comfort and learning healthier ways to provide it. It’s learning to separate the food itself (which, after all, is just food) from the feelings that we’ve associated with it: both the ones that we think “cause” us to reach for it and the ones we experience after we’ve eaten it.

Here are 3 simple ways (plus a very delicious homework assignment) to begin the important work of overcoming emotional eating:

  1. Become more aware of your triggers. These can be specific situations, feelings, or thoughts that lead us to seek comfort in food. By identifying these triggers, we can start to understand what emotional needs we’re trying to meet and begin to address them in healthier ways. Keeping a food and mood journal can be a helpful tool in this process. Write down what you eat, when you eat it, and how you’re feeling at the time. Over time, patterns may emerge that reveal your unique triggers. The point of this exercise is not to track food or calories, but to observe, without judgment, what is truly causing you to reach that food or drink… and why.
  2. Learn to sit with your emotions. This might sound uncomfortable, and it often is at first. However, it’s an important part of understanding and managing our emotional needs. Instead of immediately turning to food when a strong emotion arises, try to sit with the feeling. Acknowledge it, allow it to be present, and remember that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable sometimes. Our feelings, even the challenging ones, don’t need to be fixed or numbed; they need to be felt and understood.
  3. Develop a toolbox of self-care strategies that aren’t related to food. This might include activities like taking a walk, reading a book or listening to a podcast, practicing yoga, calling a friend, or just going for a drive for a change of scenery. These are more nourishing ways to provide comfort and manage stress, and they contribute to our overall well-being instead of just providing temporary relief.

Food is meant to be enjoyed, and it’s perfectly normal to derive pleasure and comfort from eating. The key is to ensure that food isn’t your only source of comfort and that you’re not using it to consistently numb or avoid your feelings. Enjoy your favorite comfort foods mindfully, savoring each bite, and recognizing the pleasure they bring.

Here’s a little homework assignment for this week:

Eat the food! Yeah, your favorite comfort food. But… start to notice certain things about the food: really slow down and pay attention to how it tastes, how it feels in your body and what emotions come up for you before and during eating it. The idea is to free yourself from the story of those foods that you see as “bad” or those that lead to out-of-control eating and just start to notice how you actually respond to the food. When you do this in this way, you eliminate the novelty of the food, or the thing that makes it overly appealing and exciting.

Restricting a certain food can cause a sense of urgency which makes it easier to overeat. It also causes an overly excited reaction which can prevent you from even tasting the food you’ve craved so very much.  Bummer!  The truth is that both excitement and guilt can interfere with the ability to be present with a food, and ultimately, the satisfaction you get from it.

Conversely, when you slowly reintroduce foods, you sit with the food and focus on the sensation you get from it. And you might even be surprised by what happens. You might even discover you don’t like the food. Or maybe you’ll just begin to realize: it’s no big deal. Essentially, once you eliminate feelings of excitement and guilt, you reduce the food’s power over you, and you can connect to what’s really going on in your body.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • What feels like your go-to when it comes to those off-limit foods: excitement or guilt?
  • How do those emotions affect your enjoyment of those foods when you do allow yourself to consume them?
  • How does this exercise empower you when it comes to those foods?

Overcoming emotional eating doesn’t mean giving up comfort food; it means expanding your comfort zone and learning new ways to nourish your body and soul.

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