Mindfulness: The Key to Freedom from Emotional Eating
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve either been on a diet or an extended binge- I don’t even know when I’m hungry anymore.” This was a recent quote by my patient, Sarah, who had come to me to address emotional eating prior to her upcoming weight loss surgery. Sarah’s experience was a phenomenon that I’d encountered countless times- individuals who restrict calories in order to lose weight, but then binge when the feelings of deprivation become overwhelming. When caught in this cycle, all awareness of internal hunger cues gets lost: the individual has no idea when she is hungry or full. She eats what she “should” for a period of time, only to eventually binge on what she “shouldn’t.” Weight is lost and regained. Feelings of frustration and hopelessness return repeatedly.
How can you break this “restrict-binge cycle” and regain touch with your body’s wisdom? To help my patients do this, I developed four mindfulness-based questions for guidance and introduced them in my book, The Weight Loss Surgery Coping Companion. What do I mean by mindfulness? When applied to eating, mindfulness means taking a break from the cell phone, television, kids, etc. and really noticing if you are hungry or not. Also, it means really noticing if you are confusing physical hunger with emotional hunger. Finally, it means really noticing your experience of eating (e.g., the taste, smell, and texture of your food); and then really noticing when your body is truly satisfied with the amount you have eaten.
Below are the four mindfulness-based questions that you can use anytime you feel compelled to eat:
“Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry?”
To answer this question, close your eyes, relax your body, and scan for signs of physical hunger: does your stomach feel hollow? Do you feel weak? Dizzy? Are you mildly nauseous? Don’t worry about what you’ve eaten so far today, what time it is, or what you “should” feel. Take your time and really listen to your body. Do you need food for fuel?
Next, scan for signs of emotional hunger. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and attend to your internal experience. Do you notice feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, or loneliness? Do you feel agitated or “at loose ends?” Are you bored? Tired? Do you feel like yelling, crying, or resting? Gently notice what your emotional self is telling you.
If your answer to question #1 is physically hungry, then ask yourself, “What is my body truly craving?“
Think carefully about the foods below and actually imagine yourself eating them. How would they feel in your body? Which one(s) is your body craving in order to feel nourished right now? If you truly listen to your body, you will find that it craves a healthy combination of the foods listed below:
Fruits (e.g., oranges, bananas, grapes)
Vegetables (e.g., salad, carrots, broccoli)
Protein (e.g., nuts, eggs, beans, meat)
Dairy (e.g., cottage cheese, a yogurt smoothie)
Carbohydrates (e.g., bread, pasta)
Whole grains (e.g., whole grain bread, crackers)
Liquids, as thirst is often mistaken for hunger (e.g., water, juice)
Once you have identified what your body is craving, mindfully eat whatever you are craving. Eat slowly and really notice the sight, smell, taste and texture of your food. Continue eating until you feel satisfied. How can you determine when you’re satisfied? My favorite way to determine this is to ask yourself this question: do you have a sense of fullness, but could still comfortably dance or take a brisk walk? As you’re mindfully eating a meal, periodically check-in with yourself and ask this question. When you reach this point, stop eating and mindfully enjoy the satisfied sensation. Know that you will eat again soon, whenever your body signals that it is physically hungry once more.
If your answer to question #1 was emotionally hungry, then ask yourself, “What am I feeling and needing emotionally right now?“
Again, close your eyes, take deep breaths, and notice your emotional experience. What are you feeling and needing right now? Are you feeling lonely, anxious, angry, or depressed? Are you agitated? Do you feel bored? Tired? Do you need support, connection with others, rest, relaxation, or nurturing? Do you need to express a feeling such as anger? Let your feelings wash over you- really experience them- and meet these feelings with compassion.
If your answer to question #1 was emotionally hungry, then ask yourself, “What can I do right now to soothe myself that does not involve food?”
What could you do right now to honor your emotional needs? Do you need to slow down, lie down, and get some rest? Would it help to write in a journal? Get out of the house and go to a store? Take a walk in nature? Connect with someone? Watch a movie? Take a step towards resolving an issue with someone? Honor your feelings and give yourself whatever you need!
I’m happy to report that Sarah is on a healthy path to rediscovering her body’s wisdom. She takes time each day to nourish her mind, body, and spirit through mindful eating and emotional self-care; and is approaching her weight loss surgery with a much healthier relationship with food. I truly hope that these four questions are equally helpful to you!