Just one piece of cake.

Just one scoop of ice cream.

Just one bowl of chips.

Just one chunk of chocolate.

Just one. Just one. Just one.

Except one turns into two. And two turns into three. And then …

You just can’t put the fork down, can you? The more you eat, the more you feel like you’re satisfying some part of you that’s missing, like you’re calming your overwhelmed state in the world.

That, my friends, is emotional eating.

Many of us turn to food as a source of comfort. And then food becomes tied to our emotions so we reach for it when life starts to dip and dive.

It’s the same way an alcoholic thinks when she reaches for that next shot of vodka.

It’s the same way a drug addict thinks when he seeks that next hit.

Food becomes an addiction.

Food is my drug of choice

When I was a teenager, I looked for social acceptance. I wasn’t heavy. I was athletic but always thought of myself as “fat” and I never fit in with the jocks, nerds or cool crowd.

I ate.

When I was recovering from my car accident more than 20 years ago, I compensated for my inability to be active and fed my depression (yes, pun intended).

I ate.

I’ve weighed as heavy as 243 pounds.

I’m an emotional eater and food is my drug of choice. I have cravings for carbs and those aren’t easy to overcome. The brain creates a chemical connection with the sugar in high-glycemic carbohydrates that causes us to overeat.

The sugar leads to a boost in serotonin, the brain’s chemical that lets us feel content and happy.

So, when we need to calm down, when we’re stressing over something, when we’re overwhelmed, we turn to our favourite foods … sugary, sweet, delicious foods.

We eat, we set up the chemical imbalance, we crash, we crave more, we eat … it’s a never-ending cycle!

That’s when we start playing the overeater’s game. We stay up late after the spousal unit has gone to bed, so we don’t have to share. We hide the wrappers so he never needs to know how many chocolate bars I … er, we … ate.

We think about eating when it isn’t time for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And, of course, we cause ourselves more stress.

Stop the overeating madness

A high level of shame comes with overeating.

There’s the self-loathing we feel when we know we’ve eaten too much, when those jeans don’t fit us any more, when we don’t have the energy to climb the stairs.

There are the body-image issues, which we’ll get into at another time (soon!).

There’s the public perception around people with food addictions. (I get it. I went to Overeaters Anonymous and became very judgmental because I didn’t see food as an addiction. I thought, “if you just got your shit together and stopped eating …”)

[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#selfcare #stressmanagement” remove_twitter_handles=”true”]We do so much damage to our psyches when we slam ourselves with negativity.[/tweetthis]

And that can cause us to turn around and eat even more to soothe the stress we’re creating. We don’t even get to enjoy what we’re eating — and that sucks!

The first step is recognizing you are an emotional eater. This isn’t easy. It takes some introspection. Try answering these questions:

  1. Do you reach for food when you’re stressed or emotional, but not necessarily hungry?
  2. Do you find yourself staring into the cupboard or fridge, wondering what to have and nothing grabs you, because you’re not hungry, you’re hunting?
  3. Do you use eating to avoid stress or confrontation?
  4. Do you beat yourself up for snacking, especially on “bad” foods?
  5. Do you keep your fridge and shelves stocked with the foods that answer to your cravings?
  6. Do you aim for one small bite and end up devouring far more?

If you answered “yes” to one or more, you might want to take the next step: Get rid of the cravings and eat from a place of control. That’s where I am now, after years of struggling to get hold of my eating.

Researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador learned that one in 20 Canadians is a food addict, defined by senior author Guang Sun as someone who is a compulsive overeater in “harmful and unhealthy ways.” Seven per cent of those Canadians are women.

In the same National Post story that cites the MUN research, Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto and head of the mental health section for the Canadian Obesity Network, says we must treat the causal issues such as stress.

If you’re in the full addiction stage, it’s time to seek help from a professional. Full-blown food addiction is a psychological condition that needs to be addressed from an emotional and mental standpoint.

If you’re not there, if you feel like you can find a place of balance on your own, try these emotional-eating solutions as suggested by The Mayo Clinic:

  • Keep a food diary and note how you’re feeling when you eat to establish the pattern between mood and food
  • Manage your stress better
  • Give your craving time to pass … if you aren’t really hungry, don’t eat!
  • Find help from family, friends, a life coach or even support groups
  • Don’t be bored
  • Resist the temptation by keeping certain foods out of your house
  • Don’t deprive yourself
  • Snack well with fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Learn from your setbacks

Don’t forget to add in what I’m doing: meal planning, packing my lunchbox for the day and eating on a regular schedule. And change your routines — like adding a sweet to your coffee break or watching too much TV at night (bored eating … hello!) — to help break habitual patterns.

Like the French playwright and actor Moliere said:

One should eat to live, not live to eat.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up all your favourite foods. We have to change the way we look at food.

As a healthy way to fuel your body and your brain.

Not as a source of comfort and stress management.

Image courtesy of MisterGC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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