The popular culture often trivializes people’s struggles with food making reference to their indulgence in “comfort foods” like it’s no big deal. While women are far more likely to be a target, trust me, men struggle with food just as much. The sad reality is that turning to food for comfort is a losing proposition because food will never comfort you.
Oh, it may taste good in the moment, but it will never fill the void you’re trying to fill.
In reality, most people at least to some small degree, occasionally struggle with emotional eating. For others, it’s a war they wage daily that too me, is so much more difficult than for example, an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
You don’t need alcohol or drugs to live and yet food, the very thing you battle, is an absolute necessity for daily survival. It can be like walking a proverbial tight rope where you’re constantly struggling to maintain balance. And with just one false step or bite, you can plunge into overindulgence.
Food can be a “liar”, “thief”, and “destroyer”. If you really do struggle with emotional eating, then you know what I mean. Food will lie to you when you’re feeling tempted to indulge. And when you’re behavior really gets out of control, food can rob you of your peace of mind and ultimately destroy your life.
There’s a difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder. Stuffing yourself to the point of minor misery at Thanksgiving could almost be considered disordered eating and yet it’s a culturally accepted practice. But that’s way different than someone who regularly binges and then forces themselves to throw up to keep from gaining weight. That’s calling Bulimia. And don’t forget Anorexia where people literally starve themselves also for fear of gaining weight.
If you struggle with either of the latter conditions, please seek professional help. Dealing with these challenges is way beyond my scope of practice or the intent of this post. However, for those who occasionally struggle with feeling out of control with their eating, I may be able to offer some practical suggestions.
First of all, if you struggle emotionally with food…
- Identify your triggers and seek to remove or avoid them. For most this will be people, places, and activities. If you find yourself every Friday afternoon after work at happy hour with a certain group loading up on margaritas & chips & queso, you might consider a change. The people may be fine but the place and the activity you’re taking part in is not doing you any favors with your health.
- If you determine that your social group is okay and that the problem is the place and activity, then seriously consider changing up your scenery. If they’re really your friends and have your best interest at heart, they will be supportive. If they resist the change, then you have a choice to make. Remember, your associations in life will make or break you…so choose wisely.
- This last point is heavy, but it could really help. When you’re facing a “binge”, you only have two paths to consider. If you shut your thinking off to the “after” and focus all your energy on satisfying yourself in the present moment, you will likely give in. If however, you can take a deep breath and really consider the “after”, you may find your escape.
Now if you’re willing to take that breath and seriously consider the absolute consequences of what you’re considering, then the next step is to move. I literally mean to get up and out of the physical place you’re in. If you’re at home, go for a walk or a drive. If you’re at your office, get up from your desk and again go take a walk. If appropriate, call a friend. Act your way into a different feeling. If you stay in your current place, you may unfortunately slip back in your thoughts only to come face to face with the enemy…the binge.
Remember, you can only eat so much and then you must return to reality. Regardless of what is waiting for you, do you want to take that step under normal circumstances or in the midst of a food “hangover”? I promise, no one wants to be a parent, child, friend, or name your occupation or activity under the cloud of a food hangover. I know full well from personal experience that the most common feeling is to simply want to shut yourself off from the world.
Part of the struggle people face is actually self-inflicted by pursuing perfection with their eating. They possess the false notion that you have to eat “perfectly” all the time to achieve and or maintain an ideal body weight. There is no such thing as good or bad food…only more or less nutritious food and both can have their place in a balanced and healthy nutrition plan.
When you deprive yourself long enough from whatever your favorite thing or things are, you will hit a wall. Nutritionist Keith Klein, in Houston, TX, calls this the psychology of deprivation. After a lengthy period of severe restriction, you will have a trigger event that throws you over the edge. It could be as simple as a long and stressful day at work which leaves you feeling nothing more than…I want my Ben and Jerry’s.
For the positive, you can avoid this whole scenario by treating yourself on an appropriate basis with a normal serving size of whatever your favorite thing is. I wrote about this in detail in “No Cheat Meals Required“, but the essence of the strategy is this. It’s called 90/10 Compliance. Regardless of how many meals you eat per week on average, if you will make 90% of them clean and on track, you can have the other 10% to loosen the reigns and enjoy your favorite foods.
I only caution you in two ways. First, don’t decide after an extra-long and stressful day that it’s going to be a 10% or “treat” meal night. That’s probably not going to end well because you’re not thinking straight. Consider planning in advance when your mind is clear and then stick to this second little guideline. Eat whatever you want but stick with normal portion sizes. Then walk away with no guilty feelings.
This little practice will work for the majority and will keep you from running smack into the wall of deprivation. The only time this may not work is if your emotional eating is a little more advanced and you have certain trigger foods where when you have a bite, you’re likely to eat the pint…or tub.
For me, this is store bought sweets. I decided after years of struggle to simple abstain…period. I love my homemade treats including cheesecake and cookies and my daily pancakes of course, but they’re all super healthy and don’t cause me to lose my freakin’ mind.
Only you can determine whether a given food is okay to occasionally enjoy or not. If you find yourself going in with the best of intentions and yet you consistently end up out of control, you may have identified a trigger food that you simply need to avoid.
Another possible solution is that you could come up with a healthy alternative.
Precision Nutrition is the name of an industry leading coaching and educational company. I have their Level 1 certification and I’m currently working on their year-long Level 2 master-class certification. PN does amazing work and the info they teach is life changing.
Precision nutrition is also a philosophy of eating and preparing meals. You can take any dish that might be considered less than healthy, like store bought pizza or Mexican food or sweets and totally change them for the positive. When you pull out the excess sugar and unhealthy fats and replace them with clean proteins and healthy fats, you really can create some great tasting and healthy meals.
This has been my go to strategy now for years. I have three protein shakes a day and they’re all different in terms of what they do for me and in how they taste…and they’re all amazing! Further, I have protein pancakes literally every day of my life unless I’m traveling. It’s my own recipe, it’s super healthy, and they are incredible! These collectively feed my sweet tooth daily and yet I’m never tempted to over-indulge.
Closing thoughts for my readers:
Writing this post has been on my heart for some time. As a nutrition coach, I work with people daily who struggle with food and I just felt compelled to share. If you really do battle with your eating, consider getting some help. The most successful people from all walks of life have coaches and seeking professional help with a food struggle is really no different.
For some additional resources on healthy eating, consider the following:
Gourmet Nutrition: The Cookbook for the Fit Food Lover
Eating for Life from Bill Phillips
Best of luck in your journey…