How can you eat consciously when you’re upset, angry, sad, or lonely?

Homemade lasagna. A hot fudge sundae with extra fudge. A crisp kale salad straight from the garden. There’s probably a list of foods that make you sigh with pleasure, just thinking about them. It’s great when we can enjoy what sustains us. And it’s easy to overeat, especially when we feel triggered or upset.

Underlying emotion can be the reason. How many times have you gotten upset, impulsively gone to the cupboard thinking “I’ll just have a few chips,” and then found yourself a few minutes later mining for the crumbs at the bottom, having eaten the whole bag? It’s easy to eat a whole pint of ice cream when you feel lonely or angry or misunderstood. That eating is driven by unconscious emotions, or addiction patterns.

Because we have to eat to live, it can be tricky keeping our needs and our desires in balance. Eating patterns can get tangled up with our emotional needs. Unhealthy eating habits become entrenched – sliding into addiction as the chemicals in our brain adjust with the new behavior. We eat when we are tired, when we are angry, or sad, or excited. You don’t have to be overweight to have “issues” with food; chronic under eating can be just as problematic as chronic over eating.

Bottle feeding on a schedule can condition a baby to routine gluttony and starvation. The baby quickly learns to gulp her nourishment and finish it all to carry her into her next hungry time. As a newborn, I was bottle fed on a schedule and later, my parents, who were children of the Great Depression, taught me to eat everything on my plate and never waste food. Now, even though I have enough to eat and can eat when I need, I still both gulp my food and have a hard time not finishing everything in front of me – even if I’m no longer hungry.  And I have a lot of company in this pattern.

Conscious Eating steps and awareness

Impulsive or unconscious eating is often driven by unconscious or unresolved emotional issues. Even though you may love certain foods or revel in the sensuality of taste, overeating comes from a deeper psychological place. It may be an attempt to soothe yourself or to meet needs for nurturing. It may be unconsciously designed to distract or numb yourself so you don’t feel painful emotions that are coming to the surface.[1]

Feeling sad, victimized, helpless, lonely, angry, even simply tired – all are reasons to fuel up or numb down with food.   In his book, In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think[2] , Brian Wansink describes an array of fascinating eating studies and gives practical tips for eating consciously and less. Eat from smaller plates that make food portions look bigger; drink from tall, thin glasses rather than short wide ones. This helps us consume less because we believe our minds, not our stomachs. The huge portions that have become standard in the American diet contribute to our growing obesity. The 32 oz Big Gulp – that’s not a gulp, that’s a quart of soda! You’ll do yourself a huge favor if you drink water from your Big Gulp container.

Weight loss programs help you see what you’re eating and how much. Limiting your portions and keeping scrupulous track of everything you eat is a great way to loose weight. But what about those moments of unconsciousness when you mow down a pint of ice cream or rip into a bag of chips and finish the whole thing? After the rush subsides, you feel terrible. But just as that initial “I need something,“ impulse fades, so does the “I will never do that again” promise to self.

  1. Become more conscious of how and when you eat.

Look at portion size, how fast you eat, how you feel as you eat, and your familial and cultural patterns around food.  Also notice what you were feeling just before you impulsively went to the fridge or pulled in to buy a snack. If this is complicated journal or make a chart about your most likely triggers and the ways you succumb to impulsive or self-destructive eating.

  1. Devise strategies to counteract your eating impulses

  • Prepare healthy food ahead of time and keep good choices visible when those cravings and impulses roar loudly.
  • Put hummus; carrot and celery sticks; soaked raw nuts; ready-to-eat fruit; front and center in your fridge or on your desk. Hummus and nuts have protein and fat that satisfy food cravings; carrots and celery are crunchy and help your mouth and jaw work as you chew them well.
  • Frozen grapes or berries can replace ice cream as a cold, sweet go-to. Eaten one at a time, they are very satisfying and can help you regain consciousness about what you are doing.
  • Avoid eating while distracted
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV, computer, or while doing other things. When eating at a new restaurant with friends, focus on your eating.

It’s easy to overeat /undereat where there are many interesting and unknown food choices and/or social distractions and triggers to keep you unaware of your body’s needs.

  • Pay attention to portion size.
  • Use smaller plates that make food portions look bigger and drink from tall, thin glasses helps us consume less because we believe our minds, not our stomachs. Drink water from your 32 oz. Big Gulp container instead of soda – that’s not a gulp, that’s a quart!
  • At a potluck, decide ahead of time that you will try only three or four dishes on your first “pass”; take small portions and stay focused on chewing and breathing. Enjoy your food. Really feel your hunger level before going for a second round. You can socialize after you eat.
  • Eat slower. Put down your utensil between bites. Chew your food thoroughly – to liquid. Really taste the good food you give yourself. I remember watching my 2-yr old friend eat fresh strawberries. Her face was rapt and completely focused as she took her time to enjoy the gorgeous feeling and delightful taste of those berries. I thought “I want to enjoy my food like that!” and I can.
  • This becomes part of an overall re-training and making conscious how you eat.
  1. Practice in easy situations to gain confidence and awareness for the more challenging ones.

    Try these strategies at home, when you are relaxed and centered, so you get used to them for the triggered times.

  2. Be patient with yourself.

    It probably took years to solidify any destructive eating habits you have and they often run emotionally deep. It will take time to retrain yourself and have it stick. This is a long-term plan to increasingly more conscious about your eating.

Fresh healthy food is a gift you give to your body. Another gift you can give yourself is greater awareness of how the emotions in your body become physical. Get your copy of Issues in Your Tissues now.

conscious-eatingCopyright 2014, By Denise LaBarre   Thank you for quoting and citing respectfully.

[1] From www.SelfTherapyJourney.comby Jay Earley    If you want a brilliant, comprehensive, user-friendly online tool to help you unravel the emotional tangle that leads to overeating, this is the best you will find.
[2] Brian Wansink, PhD, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Bantam 2006

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Copyright 2014, by Denise LaBarre   Thank you for quoting and citing respectfully.

**A shorter version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Living Aloha magazine.