Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

Nourish Move Thrive

“What a stressful day! I need chocolate!”

Where do you turn to deal with your emotions? A friend, your journal, a run, social media, food? Eating for emotional reasons is a normal part of the human experience. But, if food is the only tool in your toolbox when big feelings hit (whether positive or negative), you may want to learn some new strategies.  

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is using food for comfort, stress relief or a reward. It usually

  •  comes on suddenly
  • involves craving specific comfort foods
  • leads to mindless eating
  • doesn’t appease your emotions once you’re full
  • isn’t due to physical hunger located in the stomach (usually in your head)
  • leads to regret, guilt and shame

While emotional eating may feel good in the moment, it can make you feel worse in the end because you still have to deal with the source of the emotion in addition to the discomfort and anxiety of overeating. If you are trying to improve your relationship with food, finding additional tools to cope with feelings is part of the journey.

Though intuitive eating includes eating for physical rather than emotional reasons as one of its core principles, there are important nuances to understand about this approach. Intuitive eating can help identify a range of ways to comfort yourself that include, but do not solely rely on, food. It recognizes that emotional eating is normal. At times the urge to eat may be a proxy for something else, such as a need for rest or social connection. Take time to listen for what your body is asking. For example, after a stressful day, your body may be asking for chocolate, rest, time with loved ones, something else or some combination of the above. You get to decide what works best.  

Mindfulness activity for emotional eating

Many people struggle with emotional eating because they try to avoid or numb their emotions. Learning to identify emotional triggers is key to unhooking food from feelings and eating in response to hunger and satisfaction instead.

1. Use an intentional pause or time-out period to help you practise sitting with your feelings. Try this mindfulness activity the next time you feel the urge to eat but are not physically hungry.

2. Find a quiet place to sit without distractions.

3. Set a timer for three to five minutes.

  • Ask “What am I feeling?” Be curious rather than judgmental. If this is new for you, a feeling wheel may help you identify your emotions.

4. When the timer goes off, ask “What do I need?”

  • Again, be curious rather than judgmental. It may help to reframe this question to “If I couldn’t have food right now, what would I be missing?”

5. Aim to meet your needs.

  • Be aware that if you choose not to eat, you may feel sadness. This happens because you have set a limit on an enjoyable experience. Remind yourself the feeling will pass and that you can eat again when you feel hungry.
  • If you choose to eat, aim to eat mindfully without judgment. Slow down, taste your food and enjoy it.

Remember, when you crave food but are not physically hungry, your inner voice is trying to tell you that something in your life needs attention.

Setting the stage to honour your body

Sometimes food issues stem from primal hunger and/or deprivation rather than an inability to deal with emotions. Addressing these two areas provide a good starting point for honouring your body’s needs.

Nourishment

Let me tell you about a scenario I hear often from people who want to get healthy and lose weight. Breakfast is small, maybe some Greek yogurt and fruit, and lunch features a big salad with protein (no carbs). Things go well until late afternoon when your stomach growls, but it is not time to eat yet. You allow yourself to have a small snack of almonds to tide yourself over until a carefully portioned dinner of grilled fish, brown rice and veggies. However, once dinner ends, you start reaching for a little of this and that. Before you know it, you have eaten a lot of food, and you go to bed with a stomach-ache, disappointed about another night of emotional eating.

When I hear this, I suspect that primal hunger is what is really at play. Primal hunger refers to the body’s biological need for adequate nourishment. If you undereat, your body will eventually drive you toward food, and many people eat beyond their fullness signals. The best remedy for this is to regularly nourish your body with meals and snacks throughout the day. Experiment with how balanced meals spread evenly over the day make you feel.

Deprivation

The dieting cycle is a familiar trap for many people. Restricting food leads to feelings of deprivation, increased thoughts about food and a desire for forbidden foods. When you eventually “allow” yourself to eat, you may find you eat more than normal. Feelings of guilt and/or shame about eating often lead to more restriction and may restart the whole diet cycle. Even if you have given up dieting and chosen to make peace with food, you may still have a lingering diet mentality. For example, you might still label foods as good and bad, put conditions on eating foods or eat differently in social settings than when alone. In both scenarios, exploring the intuitive eating principle of giving yourself unconditional permission to eat may be helpful.

What else can help?

Practice daily self-care

Without self-care, it can be hard to listen to your inner wisdom of hunger and fullness, and food can become more rewarding. We all have needs that deserve to be met, and daily self-care practices related to our physical, emotional, relational and spiritual health are foundational to an overall healthy life. As we have discussed before, it is worth assessing your sleep habits, stress levels and use of time. You need to be well rested with space in your schedule to have the capacity to make healthy choices.

Find your inner compassionate voice

If you have struggled with emotional eating, remember that it served a purpose in your life. Food may have been the only coping mechanism accessible to you at the time. Dwelling on guilt and shame do not work to improve your health. Use positive, compassionate self-talk and affirmations like the examples in this blog to help change your relationship with food.

Get support from experts

Emotional eating can be difficult to navigate. One tool I love that offers a self-study approach is The Intuitive Eating Workbook. The workbook features exercises and activities to help you develop a healthy relationship with food. If your feelings are extremely intense or overwhelming, it may be helpful to see a registered dietitian and/or psychologist who specializes in this area.

AFLCA members

Are you looking for practical nutrition tools for your clients? Log in to the AFLCA Members section of the website and order free resources today! Great options to compliment this blog include The Balanced Plate.


This blog was inspired by The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. 


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Jaclyn Chute, RD

Registered Dietitian

Jaclyn (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and Project Manager at Dairy Farmers of Canada. She believes eating should be both nourishing and satisfying, and is passionate about helping others develop a healthy relationship with food.

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