I was visiting a friend and her 10-week old baby over the weekend. Little Annie was fidgeting when I arrived. Mom, already well versed in Annie’s moods, knew she was hungry and began to feed her. As the baby ate, her body relaxed, and she closed her eyes. With a full belly, she was wide-eyed and available for cooing and play.
As I watched mother and child, I was reminded we learn to be soothed by food before we learn to sit up, to stand, or to utter our first word. I remember promises of desert for good behavior or a cookie as tears subsided from a scrapped knee. Those messages are reinforced in the culture as sitcom stars heal broken hearts with ice cream and Snickers commercials tell us, “You’re not you when you are hungry.”
Emotional hunger can lead to emotional eating because food is soothing, whether the emotion is sadness, joy or boredom. Often what we are craving is support or connection or both.
As a culture, we eat for celebration, for depression, over anger, over grief, boredom and out of anxiety. Some people skip meals when they are depressed but eat when anxious or bored. For some, food is simply fuel and for others it is the only source of soothing they have learned to count on. For many of us, we are somewhere in between.
A coworker gave me the above cartoon after we had a conversation about emotional eating. It hangs on my refrigerator as a gentle reminder to ask if myself if I am in the kitchen for my stomach or my heart. If it is after 8pm and the television is on…it is likely what I call “TV Doldrums.”
As a mindful eating teacher, recovering emotional eater and woman imperfectly incorporating mindful eating in my life, emotional eating happens. Sometimes my heart demands chocolate but the goal is to eat that chocolate mindfully. Mindfully feeding the heart involves in a few simple steps:
Before taking your first mindful bite, you may be wondering what mindful eating is. The best way to answer this question is through experience but under the exercise I included the definition from the Center for Mindful Eating.
This exercise is traditionally done with a raisin, although any dried fruit preference is fine. You may also use a strawberry or a small piece of carrot or celery if dried fruit is not an option. (p.s. – I hate raisins but have done the exercise repeatedly with raisins and find previous likes and dislikes are not important to gain value from the experience).
According to the Center for Mindful Eating, someone who eats mindfully is aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities available in food selection, preparation and consumption; a mindful eater uses all the senses to choose satisfying and nourishing foods; a mindful eater acknowledges what he/she likes, dislikes, or feels neutral toward without judgement, and allows awareness of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide decisions around when and how much to eat.
Mindful eaters do all this imperfectly and acknowledge not every meal is mindful. Our fast-paced culture does not provide a lot of space for eating all meals mindfully. I recommend starting every day with a mindful breakfast but when I am in a hurry, I settle for eating that first bite mindfully.
Rhonda Britten, a mentor of mine and author of the book Fearless Living, says, “When you can be comfortable being uncomfortable, that’s self-mastery.” The moment I heard Rhonda make that statement it became a life goal, a new practice. A few years later I discovered mindfulness and understood the power of the practice of mindfulness for helping me move toward that goal.
Fear and avoidance of discomfort can lead to a variety of what I call the “too much behaviors.” Eating too much, drinking too much, working too much, shopping too much are all examples of this. The beauty of mindfulness is that it teaches a gentle acceptance of whatever comes, with an understanding that everything in life is impermanent.
When I teach mindful eating introductory workshops, I always ask what people eat over, other than hunger. Answers may vary, but boredom and anxiety are always on the list. Becoming comfortable with discomfort means knowing anxiety and boredom will pass. Both boredom and anxiety are feelings we tend to move away from and eating creates a temporary distraction. A mindfulness practice not only allows one to be more aware of a moment to moment experience, but also more accepting of that experience.
The next time you notice yourself standing in front of the refrigerator or taking another pass at the appetizer table, take a few breaths where you stand. Perhaps notice what you are feeling, what you are experiencing in your body, and if your mind is busy or calm. With practice it only takes a moment to check in with yourself. Focus on where you feel your breath, and perhaps ask what you need at that moment.
Ice cream makes my nose stuffy and when eaten at night, I snore. I rarely eat ice cream because I don’t enjoy the consequences but on rare occasions the craving for flavor overcomes a dislike for a stuffy nose. Recently, friends suggested we stop at Sweet Rose Creamery after dinner.
The salted caramel flavor was amazing but vanilla is my favorite. It was so hard to choose that I got two scoops. Nearly finished with the first scoop I was already grieving the end of the ice cream. The ice cream outing was right after dinner so I was already somewhat full when we arrived. By the time I was scrapping the cup, both scoops finished, I was heading to an overstuffed stomach.
One problem with restrictive eating is that when one does give oneself permission to enjoy the food, he or she is more likely to overeat the forbidden food treat. “After all, I never eat ice cream….I have no idea when I will eat it again. I deserve to eat every last drop.” Says the restrictor to his or herself.
Perhaps another option is to remember that I choose not to eat ice cream because I don’t like the way it makes me physically feel. I can choose to eat ice cream every day if I am willing to carry around Kleenex.
Many of us are often caught in a “forbidden foods” mentality. When one breaks down and indulges in forbidden foods we often overindulge. We become like a child making the most out of sneaking into the cookie jar because once the parents discover the break-in they will likely put the jar in a more unreachable place. Break the “forbidden” trance with a phrase that reminds you, what you eat is your decision. The phrase I forgot that night but I am going to keep in mind as I move into the holidays is, “sweetheart, it tastes really good but if you are full you can stop. You can get more tomorrow.”
The holidays are here! Thanksgiving is less than a week away. Most Thanksgiving dinners are a whirlwind of food, socializing, food, family, football, food and more food. Avoiding overeating and remaining mindful to our bodies is a huge challenge amidst all the festivities.
For the entire day, I will eat with my non-dominant hand and I invite you to join me. What difference will this make? According to a blog article on CNN , University of Southern California researchers found eating with your non dominant hand reduces food intake by about 30%. It is easy to slip into autopilot with your dominant hand but using your non dominant hand breaks that cycle.
Try it for yourself and let me know how it goes.
I am a marriage and family therapist and mindfulness and mindful eating teacher. My passion is helping others to heal their relationship with themselves, their bodies, food and other people.