Overcoming emotional eating with mindful eating
If you have ever watched a romcom or sitcom you are likely familiar with the image of someone sitting on the couch, crying post break up, eating ice-cream straight from the tub. Or perhaps you remember being bribed with a lollypop as a child after an injection at the GPs. Or perhaps you have celebrated a significant life achievement with dinner at a fancy restaurant.
It is little wonder then that many of us have come to use food as a reward or as a way to feel better. Eating, or often overeating, in response to emotional states rather than physical cues of hunger has been termed emotional eating. In moderation emotional eating is not cause for concern.
However, if you do find yourself turning to food, especially foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt as your main strategy for managing negative emotional states then you may be at risk of:
- increased weight gain and increases in BMI over time.
- greater difficulty losing weight during weight loss interventions.
- developing more severe eating disorder symptoms.
Mindfulness based interventions targeting emotional eating, and other unhelpful eating behaviours, have been shown to be effective. These interventions typically involve mindfulness training, daily mindfulness practices, learning to tell the difference between hunger and other emotional states (e.g., stress, sadness), and mindful eating exercises.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating involves:
- Listening to your body.
- Self-acceptance, compassion, and taking a non-judgemental stance.
- Using internal physical cues for what to eat, when to eat, why to eat.
- Present moment attention to food and the experience of eating. It is the opposite of eating mindlessly in front of the TV or while replying to emails on your lunch break.
If you’d like to learn more about mindful eating then check out the published guidelines on the BASICS of Mindful Eating by Lynn Rossy.
How do I practice mindful eating?
If this is your first time practicing mindful eating, then start with a small piece of food such as a raisin, piece of chocolate, or a strawberry rather than a meal. Take your time to read each step, then give it go!
- Closing your eyes and bringing your attention inwards, just noticing the level of hunger you’re experiencing. Notice your level of hunger and where in your body you feel this. Noticing any physical sensations that let you know you are hungry. Now rate how hungry you are feeling.
- Opening your eyes, bring your gaze down to your food and observe it as though you’re looking at it for the very first time. Tune into a sense of curiosity about your food and observe the appearance of your food- its shape, its colour etc.
- Lift up your food and hold it between your fingers, taking a moment to observe its texture. What does it feel like in your hands? Is it smooth or rough, heavy, or light in your hand?
- Bringing your food towards your nose, notice if your piece of food has a smell? Take a moment to register the scent of whatever you’re holding. Is it a strong or faint aroma?
- Now in anticipation of eating, notice what is happening inside your mouth. Now bring your piece of food towards your mouth, observe the motion of doing so, and just let your food rest on your lips. Notice how your lips and tongue change in preparation to eat.
- Now take a small bite of your food without chewing it. Allow it to rest on your tongue and just notice its texture and flavour.
- Begin to chew your food slowly and mindfully, savouring its flavour, making sure not to swallow yet. Taking time to notice its texture and taste. Observing any flavours and how you might describe these. Is it sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, creamy? As you chew, bring awareness to any sounds of eating.
- And when you are ready swallow your food and observe what occurs once your food moves on. Are you left with an aftertaste?
- Now rate your hunger again. It won’t have changed much yet, but it is good to get in the habit of checking in and rating your hunger throughout a meal so you can stop eating before you become over full.
- Take a moment to appreciate the food you’ve eaten.
Written by Dr Gemma Healey Clinical Psychologist
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