“I know how to eat properly, I just need to do it.”

Updated May 31, 2017

Does this sound like you? It’s certainly a phrase I hear often in my practice. The science of nutrition often focuses on what and how much to eat, but when it comes to applying it to real life, understanding why we eat is an important piece of the puzzle that unfortunately often gets ignored.

As a society, we are becoming more interested in leading healthier lifestyles and paying more attention to where our food comes from and what’s in it. With the internet and social media, this information is readily available right at our fingertips, so why are there still so many people struggling to eat well?

The truth is, knowledge is not equal to action. A 2013 survey of over 21,000 healthcare workers found very few differences between their health habits and that of the general population. As a healthy behaviour, eating well is especially complicated for two reasons:

1) Nutrition is still a relatively young science, and there is no single “perfect” diet, unlike, for example, exercising and quitting smoking, which are pretty straightforward. (For the record: exercise good, smoking bad.)

2) We don’t eat just for fuel and nutrition – we eat cake when we’re celebrating a birthday, we eat popcorn when we’re at the movies, we grab a glass of warm milk to help us fall asleep, or we give a child a candy as a reward for doing something good. First dates are often over coffee, and business deals are often done over drinks or a nice meal. Food can be an expression of culture, care or love. Food is everywhere.

Dr. Michael Vallis from Halifax’s Behaviour Change Institute even goes on to say that healthy eating is abnormal, what with to balance nutrients and food groups, when our natural impulse is just to eat anything and everything that’s in front of us.

But what if these natural impulses get in the way of achieving our health goals? What if, instead of feeling that our eating habits are normal, we feel guilt or shame whenever we eat? (And then eat more to try to comfort ourselves of this guilt and shame?) Here are some of my top tips for breaking the cycle of emotional eating and changing our relationship with food.

Top 3 Tips for Curbing Emotional Eating

1. Make change a priority.

What is the most important thing in your life right now? Is it making money? Taking care of your kids? Spending time with friends? Finishing a project? Think about the things you do for that important thing – maybe you take on more shifts or do more overtime at work to make a few extra dollars, or maybe you work through lunch so you can leave work early to pick up your kids.

Now think about where healthy eating, or whatever your health or nutrition goal might be sits on that totem pole of priorities. What if you challenged yourself to bump it up closer to the top? How would you go out of your way to achieve this now-important goal? Would you get up earlier to make lunch so you wouldn’t have to eat out as much? Would you spend a little bit more money on fresh ingredients that you like to eat?

Sometimes, giving yourself that extra push to make health a priority will help motivate change. Sometimes, you find out that it’s not the right time for that extra push – that other things are more important for now. That’s OK too.

2. Increase your awareness.

I’ve had a few clients tell me recently that their eating is “automatic” or “mindless”. One mentioned that she’d eaten half a sleeve of crackers before they realize that they’re not even very tasty! There are many ways that you can increase your awareness of your eating habits. The first one is to challenge yourself to stop. As you’re reaching for that snack, try to stop yourself for a few seconds and check in with yourself – do I really want this? Am I really hungry? Is this food going to make me feel good? Be careful that sometimes the above questions can provide “false” answers (“Yes, I really want ice cream… all the time!”). If you want to identify “true” hunger, look for physical signs, such as stomach growling, or feeling tired or irritable, and ask yourself something like, “Can I eat an apple?” By asking yourself about a food that is still tasty, but not a high-sugar/high-fat/high-salt trigger-type food, it might help you figure out whether you’re eating because you’re hungry or for another reason.

A more in-depth way to increase your awareness is through food journalling. In addition to keeping track of what and how much you eat, make a note of how you feel before and after you eat. Being reminded that a chocolate bar doesn’t lift your mood as much as you think it does might make you think twice the next time you are looking for a pick-me-up.

3. Don’t use food to feed emotional hunger.

As you become more aware of what triggers you to eat when you’re not hungry, challenge yourself to come up with activities that will satisfy those same emotions without food. For example, if you tend to turn to treats when you’re stressed, maybe try to go for a walk, practice deep breathing, read, take a bath, play a game on your phone or listen to a guided meditation. Or if you tend to eat when you’re bored, join a club, do some chores, do a crossword or Sudoku, or learn a new hobby, like knitting or origami. Perhaps none of these above activities appeal to you, but hopefully you’ve thought of some of your own! Make a list and keep it on your fridge and/or pantry – you’ll probably find that different activities will only work for certain situations and that’s OK. The key is to try!

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