Every day I meet people who eat too much. They know they do but they can’t seem to stop. Sometimes it is nutritious food, more often it’s not. Whatever the case, they know they would be much better off if they ate less.

These people are precious, intelligent humans who don’t understand why they do what they do. These people know that they need to cut down their portions and the amount of processed foods in their week yet, they don’t do it – even though they truly have a desperate desire to lose weight.

There is a big difference between eating two squares of chocolate and the whole block, between a sweet biscuit with a cup of tea in the evening and half the packet. We all know that eating too much makes us feel full and uncomfortable, but worse, it often also drives us to say very unkind things to ourselves (such as “I’m so useless, I have no willpower”) and we go to bed feeling guilty and sad, thinking we will never be strong enough to change. That belief that things will never change is very destructive.

The psychology of eating is a fascinating area. Let’s explore several ways you can address emotional eating:

BEING MINDFUL
Think about WHY you’re eating. Are you actually hungry? Or, are you eating because you’re feeling sad, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, happy, or all of the above? Many of us eat to numb ourselves from feelings we’d prefer not to feel. Ask yourself what you really want? What emotion are you seeking to calm if you’re not eating out of hunger? If you’re unable to determine this, the type of food you desire is normally a good indication – put it this way, you don’t normally crave a big bowl of broccoli for dinner if you’re eating emotionally. Typically, it’s chocolate, lollies, biscuits or potato chips – things that we perceive to provide some comfort.

CHANGE HOW YOU ‘REWARD’ YOURSELF
It is really important to disconnect food from your reward system, and start rewarding yourself with other fulfilling activities. When you’re not hungry but find yourself peering into the fridge looking for something, try to find comfort in non-food related ways, for example: go for a walk, read a book, observe nature, watch your children sleep, treat yourself to a relaxing bath or massage.

LET YOUR EMOTIONS FLOW
All emotions and feelings come and go, much like waves gently washing over you. Knowing that all feelings – both the enjoyable ones and the painful ones – subside is important because learning to deal with these more painful feelings without eating involves developing the ability to recognise this. Just feel the emotion in its entirety without doing anything to prevent it, let these feelings literally wash over you.

By eating while you’re experiencing emotions that you find challenging, you are giving food a new significance, beyond just meeting your nutritional needs. Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need this food to get through these emotions you are experiencing. Research indicates that eating high-fat (poor quality) and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the parts of your brain that manage stress, further reinforcing a reliance on this as a coping strategy.

TREAT YOURSELF WITH KINDNESS
We wouldn’t dream of speaking to a stranger, friend, colleague or family member, as harshly as we speak to ourselves sometimes. Have you ever berated yourself over something really silly? Said unkind things to yourself inside your head that made you feel worthless – such as “you’re a failure”, “you’re weak” and so on? If a child came to you feeling upset would you say those things to them? Make it your mission to catch these thoughts as they arise. Thoughts only have power when we give them our attention. Choose not to engage with them, and instead treat yourself as you would an adored child.

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