Do you find yourself reaching for a snack when you’re stumped on a project at work? Does it feel weird to watch TV and not nibble on something? Does making something to eat come to mind whenever you are bored? If so, you may be a mindless emotional eater.
Mindless emotional eating is any time you are eating for reasons other than hunger. A client expressed surprise recently when I mentioned emotional eating habits, because from her perspective, she wasn’t eating to soothe a broken heart or calm anxiety or avoid dealing with difficult emotions. But any time we reach for food and eat even though we are not hungry, we are eating mindlessly. If we feel gratification from eating even when we are not hungry, we are eating emotionally. It’s OK. We all do it.
What might not be OK, though, is the impact that it has on your health. Obesity is at an all-time high, and weight loss is a common goal at this time of year. Often, the catalyst for that weight loss is simply getting a handle on mindless and emotional eating. But, since what may be simple is not always easy, here’s how to go about it.
First, recognize that you are doing it. Just noticing that it is happening helps. Knowing why helps, too, but right now I just want you to notice it. “Woah, I just reached for one of those cookies even though I am not hungry.” That is noticing. The most important part of this step is to avoid going into negative self-evaluation. That means ending the observation with, “I just did that,” and not continuing with, “I have no self-control. I am never going to be able to do this. Why did I let myself get this way?” Imagine one of your children berating themselves for making a mistake on a homework assignment or when completing a project. Would you stand idly by and let them put themselves down? Of course not! Let’s give ourselves the same courtesy. Notice that you’re doing the thing that you want to stop, and then move on to the next step.
The next step is to redirect yourself towards something else. Diet advice often encourages finding a distraction from the temptation, as if simply being out of sight will put it out of mind. It takes a deeper intention than just a distraction to change habits. I want you to redirect yourself towards something more productive. The difference between distracting and redirecting is in the purposeful intention to change, not just delay, gratification. The purpose is to become gratified by something else.
Make a list of activities that you can take on quickly when you notice that you are doing the old habit. For bonus points, include on that list some of the goals you may have set for the year. Did you resolve to read more books? Put that on the list. To stay in touch with loved ones more regularly? Write a hand-written note. To sharpen your brain power? Pull out a crossword puzzle. The key here is to not just distract yourself with something until the feeling goes away, but to purposely redirect yourself into an activity that actually feeds the life you want to be living. Distractions are a piddling away of time. Redirections are a better use of it.
Once you are engaged in your redirected habit, it is time for step three: acknowledge that you choosing to do something different and the reason why. It’s not enough to just say, “nope, not doing that,” and change course. Our pesky little brains will just try to go back later, and we’ll have to repeat the process over and over. Instead, tell yourself, “I just reached for those cookies even though I am not hungry. I’m committed to ending mindless eating. I’m going to read my book and learn about something new.”
Mindless eating habits develop just like mindless habits that are positive, too. How you pick up your tooth brush, put on your seat belt, or make your coffee happen without you giving much notice to them, right? But when you first learned how to do those things, you paid more attention so you could learn. The way we mindlessly nibble on food throughout the day has developed in the same way, but that can change. Yes, you can tell your brain what to think! Notice, redirect, and acknowledge the intent. You did it when you learned how to brush your teeth, and you can do it with anything else.
Do you have a mindless habit that needs some attention? Look for opportunities this week to redirect yourself into something that is not just a distraction, but a better use of your time.
Feed your life!