Monday, March 21, 2011

Avoiding Emotional Eating Doesn't Mean Avoiding Treats

Many people believe that to have weight loss success we must forgo all treats. I disagree with this tactic of creating a list of foods that are off-limits. In my experience, it just doesn't work.

Some people respond to my assertion that to have permanent success we must have no forbidden foods that if certain foods are not taboo then it is okay to eat them all the time.

Of course we must eat foods that nourish our bodies...that is the primary purpose of food after all. But the truth is, most of us with weight challenges did not get to be significantly overweight because of eating to nourish our bodies!

We use food for much more than fuel for our bodies. We use food for pleasure and social reasons as well as using food for emotional reasons.

It is crucial for us to distinguish between these 3 types of eating.

Social eating is when food is part of another experience, such as Thanksgiving, birthdays, or enjoying a night out with friends. Social eating may be eating something because it is expected like birthday cake, and it may include overindulging to the extreme--like when we have to unzip our pants or take a nap after Thanksgiving's feast. With social eating, we may not actually be conscious of just how much food we are consuming, because we are more focused on the social aspect.

Pleasure eating may also have a social element to it, the key difference is that when we eat for pleasure, the focus is on the food. It may be sharing the food, sharing the experience, but the food is still in the forefront. For example, you may be having dinner with a friend (or friends) and decide you want to have dessert...and you are sharing the dessert because you want the flavor, but not the full enjoy each bite as it fills your mouth with flavor. You may eat more than you "need" (let's face it, our bodies don't "need" dessert) but because it is savored and the focus is on tasting and feeling good, you rarely will get to the button-popping stage when eating for pleasure.

Emotional eating on the other hand (can you have an "other hand" with 3 examples?) can be unconscious, like social eating, or very conscious, but rarely is it pleasurable. It may start with a thought of how good something tastes, but more often it starts as a pull...a knee-jerk reaction to a thought, feeling or event. Sometimes we are not even aware of the preceding element! We may be sad or angry, or even happy, and we are reaching for food to soothe us, to bring us to a more mellow place. And if we continue this pattern then we will need more and more food to achieve that mellow place--largely because it doesn't solve the problem, it just masks the pain temporarily.

When we go on a diet, we are not dealing with our emotional eating...and we put our favorite foods on a forbidden foods list. This sets us up for a huge negative cycle of deprivation then binge, then guilt. Now we have even more emotions to run from so we eat more, not less! This is why diets do not work.

The secret to weight loss success is to be conscious about our eating and to enjoy our treats--to have some pleasure eating events. This gives our inner child the opportunity to have treats and not feel deprived, while breaking the habits of grabbing food to soothe our inner beast.

Here's how it went in practice for me this weekend: I was feeling quite emotional, for lots of different reasons, some hormonal and some stress related, and so I was craving carbs can specifically chocolate. I had to go to the grocery store and I knew that with all these cravings it could be a dangerous run, so before I went I made sure I had a snack before hand to keep things at bay. Even still, lots of old thoughts went through my head as I entered the parking lot and walked through the store...I can buy these cookies and eat them in the car, or I can buy this and eat some and hide the rest, or...on and on. I know that whenever those sorts of thoughts of eating massive quantities of food and/or eating and hiding the evidence comes up that is a flag that the desire to eat is strictly emotional.

I was able to remind myself that I want and desire a healthy body and that eating in that way would not solve whatever was going on, and that I would address the issue when I got home. That is a big victory--being conscious about my choices--but it is just the first step.

Once home I tried to determine what was bothering me. I talked about it, I meditated on it, I cried, I tried working through it and ignoring it (this rarely works, but I still try!) I just didn't seem to be helping. I ate healthy foods and made sure my blood sugar was even, which helped, but still I had a HUGE desire to eat. I slept on it, I worked more. I finally felt the urge to turn on some music and cook a big healthy meal, play and dance to the music. So I left my desk and did just that and when I was done I finally felt at peace with myself and the desire to stuff my face was gone!

Big lesson--we can't also push through, sometimes we have to listen to our heart and let it direct us to what will help us feel better...and we have to let that voice come through, which takes love, gentleness, and practice.

Later (much later) I wanted a little something sweet...I didn't have anything in the house that sounded right (I actually had ice cream in the house but that wasn't sounding right) so I made a dark chocolate sauce and we dipped strawberries in the sauce. We had a small portion and really, really, really enjoyed the tastes and sharing the experience.

Because this eating was pleasure eating it wasn't "necessary" for my body, but it felt great for my soul and so I don't feel the need to beat myself up over it. In fact, I celebrate it as a success--a sign of true weight loss success--the ability to enjoy a small portion of delicious food, because food can and should be a source of pleasure for us.

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