As much as we all like to keep food and feelings separate – they are often intimately intertwined in more ways than we may realize. We all have at one point or another reached for food to suppress or enhance an emotion. When you come home after a stressful day of work, do you like to sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn or tub of ice cream? When you have a fun night out with friends, do you often order extra appetizers or dessert, even when you’re not hungry? There’s nothing wrong with you if you connect food and feelings – it’s a natural part of being human. But in order to be our most vibrant selves, we must learn to keep the two separate. When it’s time to eat, our minds must be focused on the pleasure of eating balanced with satisfying hunger and nutrient needs. When your mind is filled with emotions, you must find the proper, not food related, outlets for those emotions.
Think about the last time you overindulged in your favorite comfort food (think pizza, mac and cheese – for me, bean burritos). You were probably very happy leading up to and during the act of eating. Your brain was probably flooded with dopamine as you bit into the comfort food. But think about what happened 10-30 minutes after you finished. Did you feel sluggish, bloated, slow, low… depressed? You’re not alone. And yet, we still go back to these “comfort” foods, even though they leave us feeling terrible. Why is that? Well, why does an alcoholic drink every night, even when they are left with a hangover? It’s an addiction. We’re addicted to the high we get when eating so much that we forget the low that occurs afterwards.
Have no fear! You can overcome this cycle! It simply takes determination and patience. This addiction can be overcome using mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means being aware of your physical and mental reactions, rather than the outside influences. For instance, next time you are face to face with that jelly-filled donut (or pick your favorite sweet), rather than being influenced by external factors and thoughts regarding the donut, dive inside and do a physical scan. Begin with your stomach, ask yourself “am I hungry? Is my stomach truly empty?” If your stomach is not asking for food, then you are experiencing mental “hunger”, which will diminish over time if it is ignored. Next, think back to the last time you ate a similar piece of food, and think about how it made you feel – not just in the moment, but afterwards. Did the food hurt your stomach? Did the food make you bloated? Did you end up with an energy crash? Next, evaluate your emotional state. Are you stressed and looking for food to comfort you? Are you sad and needing an emotional boost? If you’re reaching for food to comfort you, then put your hand down and seek a more appropriate outlet. Find a friend to chat with, soak up some Vitamin D outside in the sun – find whatever works for you.
So, next time you find yourself reaching for “comfort” food, use that as a trigger to turn up your mindfulness meter. Overtime, you will find that your feelings will be associated less and less with food. Your emotional needs will finally be met, and you may even notice a bit of weight loss! With enough patience and determination, you will have a more meaningful and vibrant life.