Taming Emotional Eating and Cravings

Dr. Martin Binks

 

“It’s not about trying to make the perfect decision in the moment — it’s about making the next decision. For example, if I tell someone to meditate instead of eating pizza, the pizza is going to win. But if I tell that person to do a three-minute deep-breathing exercise first and then make the decision about the pizza, he or she can probably do that.”

“Emotional eating” is sort of a blanket term that describes how people use food in relation to negative — or sometimes positive — emotions. It is most commonly seen, however, as a reaction to a negative feeling. In short, emotional eaters eat to make themselves feel better. We believe it’s a coping response that stems from a lifetime of learning. For many, emotional eating begins very early in childhood; for others, it develops later in life. What’s the first thing we do when a baby is crying? We give him or her a bottle. How do we reward young children? With candy. How do we celebrate success as adults? With food and drink. This is not to say that using food in these ways is always bad — but it becomes a problem when we rely heavily on food to the exclusion of other, more healthful coping strategies.

It’s true that emotionally triggered eating can temporarily soothe people, relieve their stress, or make them feel better. But very shortly afterward, it can have just the opposite effect, making them feel guilty or ashamed. And that leads to more emotional eating, creating a vicious cycle.

I include eating to reward yourself in the emotional eating category because it is another instance of using food in response to an emotion. In every society throughout history, food has been involved in celebration — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it can be problematic to celebrate with food every time something good happens in your life, especially if you’re having a very successful life!

If people consider themselves emotional eaters, we seek to help them identify the specific emotions that trigger their eating, and under what circumstances they occur. We start by using something called a hunger/fullness scale. The first step is to ask, “Am I really hungry?” We encourage people to become aware of their hunger and satiety cues and to analyze them realistically by saying, for example, “I might feel hungry, but I ate an hour ago. I’m not physically in need of food.” The next step is to ask, in the moment a craving is occurring, “What do I really need? What’s missing? Am I bored? Am I lonely?”

If you are bored, activity of some sort is the answer. If you are lonely, then an activity that involves people is ideal — for example, calling a friend and talking for a while. For people who eat to reward themselves, we suggest trying something else once in a while, such as treating themselves to a massage or a theater ticket, taking a hike, or escaping for an active long weekend. It isn’t easy to break long-standing patterns, but it can be done.

Taming Cravings and Urges

The keys to coping with cravings and urges are time delay and distraction. One simple strategy is simply to postpone the decision. We recommend that people do something else first and make the decision about the food they crave afterward — and to keep doing that as often as they need to until the craving passes. It sounds straightforward, and it is, but sometimes it’s hard to sustain the effort needed in the face of a craving. It’s not about trying to make the perfect decision in the moment — it’s about making the next decision. For example, if I tell someone to meditate instead of eating pizza, the pizza is going to win. But if I tell that person to do a three-minute deep-breathing exercise first and then make the decision about the pizza, he or she can probably do that. It’s a matter of fighting one battle at a time. Who knows — after the relaxation exercise, the craving may have passed. If not, the person can do one more thing before reaching for the pizza.

Delay can come in many forms, including going for a walk, listening to music, taking a bath, and talking on the phone with a friend. Too often, people want an easy answer to the problem of cravings and urges. But the solution is to follow the whole healthy eating program, which reduces the likelihood of having those cravings in the first place. Keep in mind that a “whole” program includes eating well-spaced meals, managing stress, and developing coping strategies. It all comes together and chips away at the cravings, day by day.

 

Dr. Martin Binks is the Behavioral Health and Research Director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center

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