When consumed for the wrong reasons, food can become a powerful and dangerous “drug.” If you are like millions of other Americans, you may rely on food (particularly comfort food and junk food) to help ease underlying emotional pain. All too often, eating is used as a form of distraction or a coping mechanism, rather than nutrition to fuel our bodies.
Creating a better relationship with food requires large amounts of patience and self-awareness, but developing healthier habits is possible. Read below for five suggestions on breaking the connection between food and emotional pain.
1. Do not eat alone.
If you know you are prone to emotional eating during times of extreme happiness, loneliness or grief, use the buddy system when you are feeling most vulnerable. In the company of someone you trust, and who is aware of your struggles, you are much less likely to indulge in using excessive food as a numbing drug. Try to avoid eating in your car, grocery shopping late at night, or going out for treats or snacks after you are satisfied from a recent meal.
2. Do not use food as a punishment or as a reward.
While we often think of emotional eating in a negative context, much excessive calorie consumption comes from celebrations, parties, and rewards. The “treat yourself” mentality can get you into trouble, if you are simply eating something because you think you deserve to.
Eating to reward yourself for a difficult week, or for surviving a painful breakup. only reinforces a negative relationship with food. Similarly, punishing yourself for bad behavior by restricting a desired food strengthens feelings of guilt and negativity—perpetually “feeding” the emotional eating monster.
3. Know your triggers.
Each person’s relationship with food is unique to them, and learning your emotional eating triggers is an essential step in your recovery. As you practice self-awareness over time, you will become familiar with specific situations that trigger your desire to cope using food. Keep a daily “food-mood” journal for several weeks to document time of day, amounts of food eaten, any particular emotions you feel while eating, and how you feel after you are finished eating.
4. Distract yourself.
Instead of letting your emotional pain lead you to consume countless handfuls of whatever sugary snack is closest, choose to channel your powerful emotions into something more rewarding: exercising, reading, taking a warm bath, journaling, calling a friend, and even napping are all positive outlets that will allow you to feel and process your emotions in a more constructive way than eating to numb yourself from the pain.
5. Do not “humanize” your food.
Sometimes, it is easy to see our food as a friend or a loyal companion who will always be there and who will never abandon us. While chocolate, bread, and cookies may very well be our friends till the bitter end, it is important not to create emotional or meaningful bonds with our food—no matter how subconsciously the relationship may be forming. When we begin to rely on foods to do more than simply power and nourish our bodies, we give them a certain level of control over our emotions.
To ensure you keep appropriate boundaries, do not treat your food as a backup option when plans fall through, or when someone hurts you. A bag of candy is not an actual replacement for a night out with friends, and an entire pizza will not ease the loneliness you feel during difficult romantic times. Making a conscious effort to simply treat food as food can help you make great strides toward severing unhealthy emotional ties.
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