The Emotional Eating Struggle Is Real, Part One: Start With Why

Here’s a clear, effective plan to confront the reality of emotional eating.

When it comes to choosing between what’s healthy and unhealthy, sometimes it’s enough to “just say no,” like the anti-drug campaign of the Reagan era. But, when it comes to:

  • Eating more chips and queso or popcorn than we intended
  • Ordering the cheesy, fried appetizer over the shrimp ceviche
  • Indulging in some late-night Ben & Jerry’s
  • Eating when we are bored, stressed, anxious or worried
  • Over-analyzing the calories in the apple, sushi, or bite of chocolate you ate
  • Denying yourself food when you’re hungry
  • Feeling guilty or like you need to work off anything that goes in your mouth

…why is it that we can’t “just say no”? Simple. It is because the struggle is real.

It seems like something that shouldn’t exist. Like “adrenal fatigue,” “cell phone addiction,” and “obsession with healthy eating.” It makes us ask: Is it really a thing? After all, don’t we all have the power of choice and willpower to decide what we do and don’t eat? How about what we think about and don’t think about?

Again, it is because the struggle is real.

How is your current relationship with food? [Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

Why? (The Real Struggle)

“I just get cravings for _____ (popcorn, something sweet, chips).”

“How do you stop the thoughts?”

“I try to change, and may have a good day, but I always fall back into my old ways.”

So have said countless women.

For whatever reason, sugar and cravings, binge eating and “behaviors” such as purging, restricting, and over-exercising, are the Achilles heel for many girls and women. In fact, a survey conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 3 in 4 women struggle with some form of disordered eating or way of thinking when it comes to eating.

That means 3 out of 4 of us, a whopping 75%, reading this article right now:

  • Overthink food
  • Worry and stress about food
  • Count calories or the number of macros we ate in a day in an unhealthy way
  • Occassionally binge or purge
  • Restrict or diet
  • Purge or exercise to “make up” for food
  • Closet eat or binge occasionally
  • Use food to cope with life to some degree
  • Or think about wanting to be free from thinking about food

Sound familiar?

If so, you are not alone. The truth is, you don’t have to have a diagnosed eating disorder to have an unhealthy relationship with food. But you also don’t have to battle food forever—or to the degree you are now.

So the real question becomes: How do I move past it? Specifically, how do I end my emotional eating, obsessive thinking with food, closet eating, constant sugar craving, and so on? If 75% of us suffer like this, how do I become one of the 25% who doesn’t struggle with food? Regardless of your current situation, it’s important to first identify the roots of “the struggle” in order to then work through your particular hang-ups, thoughts, and habits with food.

Understand Why We Struggle

From the time we are young, we receive unhealthy, conflicting messages about food:

  • We are rewarded for straight A’s with an after-school ice cream treat.
  • We earn dessert if we eat all the veggies on our plates.
  • We receive a candy treat for “good behavior” in the classroom.
  • We learn to label foods as “good” or “bad” based on the opinions and concepts of our parents, our peers, commercials, advertising, etc.

In certain sports or activities, like dance and cheer, we may have had to “weigh in” or “watch what we eat” for the love of the game. We are taught that certain foods are “off limits” in our house. So then at a friend’s house, it was a free for all whenever we could get our hands on that “forbidden” food. We witnessed, and then took on as our own, the personal relationships and beliefs that our parents and role models had with food. Commercials demanded our attention, advertising “heart healthy and kid approved Cinnamon Toast Crunch” or cool Lunchables that every kid must try.

Step 1: Identify Your Emotional Food Story

When is the first time in your life that you first thought emotionally about food? I mean, more than just crying for food when you were hungry as a baby, or reluctantly eating your peas and carrots at dinner. Think back to your childhood, middle school, high school or young adult years—when did the thoughts and beliefs about food really begin?

When did you first use food as a reward, punishment, means to “lose weight”, or to look good?

  • Perhaps it was a diet your mom went on that increased your awareness about food’s role in weight.
  • Sneaking your Halloween candy into a shoebox in your closet so you could have chocolate before dinner when you wanted.
  • Being told by a teacher that pizza would make you fat.
  • Sitting next to a girl at lunch who drank Diet Coke and told you it was good because it didn’t have calories.
  • Working hard in school to make an A on your spelling test or score the winning goal, so you could celebrate with frozen yogurt or a milkshake afterwards.

Simply identify where your first meeting with food began, and then begin to reflect upon how did this relationship story play out in the months and years to come.

Step 2: Identify Where the Relationship Went Wrong

As you reflect, answer these next questions: Where did my relationship with food go awry anyhow? When did food become something more than a substance and source of energy, vitality, and fuel for living your life to the fullest? And, how about your food philosophies, your positive and negative beliefs about foods and about what you “should” and “shouldn’t” eat?

Chances are, your habits and beliefs have shifted and evolved over the years.

For instance, as a kid, I never thought much about food, except whether it tasted good. I had a huge sweet tooth and often ate all of my dinner in order to “earn” my right to dessert. I also am a kid of the processed-food generation, so a steady diet of Capn’ Crunch, Pop-Tarts, and Doritos was my “norm” until about the third grade.

My First Meeting with Food (& Thoughts About Food): Sitting next to my best friend at lunch one day, she told me she was going on a diet to lose 5 lbs. I had never heard of such thing before, but was intrigued by her denial of Oreos and that her lunches that consisted of Baked Lays and Diet Cokes. Nothing more really became of this instance, other than beginning to understand something new about food: calories, diets, and what is “good” and “bad.”

My Food Relationship Gone Wrong: Fast forward, one year later to fourth grade when I was talking with the popular girls at recess and the topic of weight came up. The queen bee spoke up: “Guys, I am soooo fat. I need to lose 5 lbs.” To which we all eagerly responded to the little beauty, “No, no, no! You are soooo pretty!” But the event really got me thinking, “If she thinks she is fat…then I must be a heifer!” I distinctly remember going home that day after school, standing in the pantry counting the number of fat grams on every cereal, cracker, cookie, bread, and canned food in there. Food makes people fat, I thought in my little 10-year-old mind, and from there a new, unhealthy relationship with food began.

Step 3: Assess Your Current Relationship Status

Now that you have an idea of where your food beliefs and thoughts stem from, let’s take a look at your current relationship status. A few more questions for you:

  • How much of your day is spent thinking about food?
  • How do your struggles and your thoughts about food hold you back in your life?
  • Now, the big one: How is your current relationship with food?

Step 4: Dig Deep

To do this right, get out a pen and paper and keep a food log, digging into your thoughts and behaviors with food. For three days, you’re going to be an investigator. Log everything you eat for three days, and instead of counting calories or worrying about the fat or carbs in your food, all you’re going to do is track your thoughts and feelings around meals as follows:

  • Note your level of hunger before meals on a scale of 1-10 (1=famished, 5=neutral, 10=stuffed).
  • Note your level of fullness after meals on a scale of 1-10 (1=famished, 5=neutral, 10=stuffed).

Also log any thoughts or feelings that come up before or after meals, including constipated, bloated, bored, energetic, low energy, etc. That’s it. At the end of three days, review.

Any insights learned? Patterns you notice? Times of day you struggle or think about food more? Frequent times of constipation, bloating, sugar cravings or brain fog? Note this, because we’ll talk about it more in Part 2, on Friday.

The Bottom Line for Part One

If you are not sure why you struggle with food or why the food thoughts won’t go away, do some soul searching to identify your story.

Only then can we begin to move forward.

On Friday, The Emotional Eating Struggle is Real, Part 2: Getting Over It.

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