Emotional eating is all about using food for purposes other than nourishment, such as a coping mechanism for emotions that we don’t want to feel.
Our motivation to eat doesn’t always come from the basis of physical hunger, and the food we choose isn’t always the food that best nourishes our body or our spirit. We often use food for comfort, relief, or even escape (like indulging in rich desserts to escape stress).
Food is the most accessible form of relief. Normally, we all tend to use food to distract ourselves, and it’s usually because of a certain burden. But people who chronically struggle with this are usually avoiding something bigger than that. However, being in denial and distracting ourselves from the bigger picture are not easier than dealing with the root cause itself, it’s just like applying a band-aid to a cut, and it doesn’t help us move forward.
Facing struggle isn’t easy, it requires a lot of courage!
Physical & Emotional cravings can be easily confused. Below is a brief introductory guide to understanding what makes them so different from one another, and to being aware of the many ways we can manage them in our daily lives:
Physical cravings are related to biological imbalances or nutrient deficiencies, such as:
- Dehydration: Our brain can confuse thirst with hunger, which can motivate us to reach for food instead of water;
- Lack of nutrients: Our body is wise and will often try to communicate what is missing in our diet. For example, if a woman is craving meat, this is often due to the fact that her body is in lack of protein and iron;
- Hunger: Our body senses deprivation when we try to control it, therefore if we starve it during the day, our body will seek a treat during the night by overeating;
- Hormonal imbalances: For example, before having their periods, women often reach out for more carbs, because they elevate the serotonin hormone.
Tips on how to manage physical cravings:
- Stay hydrated throughout the day;
- Focus on deep breathing;
- Exercise more and move regularly;
- Prioritize getting 7-8 hours of sleep;
- Create space for self-care and relaxation, and respect your schedule;
- Eat real, nourished, whole food regularly: more fiber, vegetables, fruits, proteins, healthy fat, and whole grains;
- Be mindful of added sugars and salt;
- Limit caffeine and alcohol;
- Try a “flexitarian” approach;
- Practice self-compassion, and let yourself enjoy some special foods.
Emotional cravings are motivated by emotional triggers, and the main potential root causes of emotional cravings are the following:
- Emotions and stress: Chronic stress keeps the sympathetic nervous system-known as “fight & flight”-in a constant “on” state, which affects everything from digestion to mood;
- Primary food deficiency: Relationships, physical activity, career, spirituality … always ask yourself “what Is missing”?
- Boredom: This is the opposite of mindful eating; we are not hungry, but we are bored and need distraction and entertainment;
- Social places: Cravings can be triggered by “where we are”, “what are we doing”, and “who we are with”.
Tips on how to manage emotional cravings:
- Associate specific emotions with specific cravings, and approach it with curiosity;
- Identify your emotions and what you really need; ask yourself “how can I be more fulfilled, and what is really lacking?”
- Reduce stress when you can;
- Practice self-compassion (write down a list of your strengths/affirmations, and post them where you can see them daily);
- Surround yourself with supportive people;
- Make a list of non-eating activities (such as walking in Nature or playing with your pet) to be prepared when boredom strikes
- Always have a current “project” that you can work on;
- Emotional healing requires going through the emotions by sitting with them and observing them without judgment.
In my practice, I focus on healing emotions by creating space for release first, practicing radical acceptance, then learning to tolerate distress, and finally developing self-healing coping skills by practicing self-compassion and letting go of unhelpful emotions like shame and self-judgment, and be nourished from the inside by practicing self-kindness.
As a holistic nutritionist, I suggest to my clients to take on a simple baby step every day, such as drinking more water, getting more sleep, laughing, cooking, having healthy relationships, enjoying regular physical activity, working in a field they love, and developing a spiritual practice. What you do on a daily basis will make the real difference!
Health is a journey, not a destination. It is all about taking small achievable steps and enjoying the process. Trust your instincts and know that each change you make has a tremendous impact on your present and future!
By, Joelle Ghaly, Health Coach & Emotional Eating Expert