“Getting Off The Diet Roller Coaster: Why Another New Food Plan Isn't The Answer To Your Emotional Eating!”
There always seems to be a new diet, or food trend that people are touting will help you lose weight. But what if you’re tired of the diet roller coaster you’ve been on all your life, and you feel like you’ve tried everything. You’ve come to the conclusion that something must be wrong with you, and can’t understand why you just end up self-sabotaging by binge eating in front of TV, or turning to food when you’re stressed. You’re an emotional eater and you feel stuck!!
But what if there is absolutely nothing wrong with you!!! What if I said that you’ve been focusing on the wrong thing, and you need to turn your attention in another direction to change your relationship with food and your body!
Food and emotions are intricately linked from when we are born, and often we use food to cope with our emotions and stressful events, otherwise called “Emotional Eating”. Unfortunately, the food that we eat at these times is often full of sugar, which triggers the reward systems in our brain and reinforces this response. In addition, these behaviors also end up becoming a habit, so the next time you experience similar emotions, or are in a similar environment, then you turn to sugar laden food to make yourself feel better.
In addition, Emotional Eating often results in feelings of shame and guilt, with people feeling bad about themselves and thinking that there is something wrong with them. And the current diet culture doesn’t help this. Don’t get me wrong, what we eat, when we eat, how we eat, are all important parts of the puzzle to optimize our health BUT if that was the whole puzzle, there wouldn’t be so many people on this diet rollercoaster!
Dealing with our unhelpful emotional eating behaviors is often the missing piece of the puzzle when we are trying to “get healthier”, lose weight and optimize our health. Emotional eating is more common than you think, and it can really feel like it derails all our efforts to ‘get healthier’.
Below are 3 lesser-known factors in emotional eating that might help you on your way to change your relationship with food and stop the self-sabotage!
1. Firstly, Emotional Eating is Normal!!!
What if I told you that emotional eating is totally normal? And in fact, food has often been the source of connection for much of history and in different cultures. Bring to mind a mother breastfeeding a baby — this is a beautiful connection between food and emotions. Even thinking about family and friends gathering together– often there is fun, laughter and connection around a table full of food. Food is often involved in religion or cultural experiences, both eating certain foods, as well as abstaining from certain foods (i.e fasting).
So, if food and emotions are connected from when we are born, what messages were you given as a child around food and your emotions? Did you get a specific type of food as a reward? Did a caregiver give your food when you were upset? What is your unique food story?
Emotional eating is common and “normal”, however the problem comes when we use food as the main way of dealing with our difficult emotions. It also becomes more complicated when we consider the addictive nature of the foods that we use to cope. The key takeaway is that the connection between food and our emotions is common and normal.
Why is this important to know?
So, you understand that there is nothing wrong with you, and you can stop being so hard on yourself. Instead use the energy to make sense of what is happening and what you need. And the next bit of information might help you understand where to look next!
2. It’s (mostly) not about the food!
It’s not about the food, but unfortunately this is where people are hyper-focused. There are lots of diets, food plans, and counting calories, which can sometimes work in the short term, but rarely in the long term. We’re missing an important piece of the puzzle by not dealing with our emotions, and we keep circling back to a new food plan! When we try to manage our emotional eating this way, we are actually looking in the wrong place. No wonder it’s been around for so long, and we can’t get free of this.
The repeated failed dieting also fuels the shame and the guilt cycle, where we think that there is something wrong with us, as the diets seem to be working for others. This can lead to more emotional eating, as a response to resultant stress that happens when we feel like we keep failing, and impacts our nervous system, which I will talk about next.
Why is this important to know?
The good news here is that we can start looking in a different place for the solution. Whilst it is important to eat nourishing food as a lifestyle choice, it usually doesn’t break the emotional eating cycle. Therefore, the place to look is in how we manage our emotions, what are our triggers, what are our coping strategies, and what is happening in our nervous system. More on this next.
3. Our nervous system is the key, and I’m not just talking about “stress.”
Our nervous system, understanding this, and having strategies to manage our different states is important. And I’m not just talking about “stress”.
But what is our nervous system? Our autonomic nervous system is made up of the nerves that run through our bodies, and regulates our bodies processes, including our heart rate, our breathing, and our digestion. Notice that these systems I mentioned are actually regulated automatically. Our nervous system uses signals from outside and inside our body, operating outside of our conscious awareness. The goal of the nervous system is to protect us by sensing safety and risk and responding accordingly.
According to Polyvagal Theory, there are three pathways in the nervous system. The Ventral Vagal pathway takes in cues of safety and supports feelings of engagement and social connection. This is the state that we want to be in when we’re eating and enjoying our food. The Dorsal Vagal pathway, responds to cues of danger, and takes us out of connection and into shut down, and out of awareness (also known as the ‘freeze system). And then there is the ‘fight-flight’ system, which also responds to cues of danger and triggers the release of adrenaline which makes us ready to fight or flee.
Emotional eating, in part, is trying to regulate the nervous system using food, rather than other strategies to re-engage the feelings of safety and engagement. It also explains why some people’s experience of emotional eating occurs when they are ‘bored’ (not just stressed). This is when the Dorsal Vagal pathway is activated, and they may be using food as a way to self-soothe. In addition, an added complication is that in states of stress, the digestive system is offline, as the body’s resources are placed elsewhere in a bid to ensure safety. Therefore, eating when we are stressed can often lead to difficulties or problems with digestion.
Why is this important to know?
By understanding that we are using food to help us “feel safe” and regulate our nervous system, it means we need to learn new skills and strategies to help us, not go on a new diet. We all have the capacity to learn new skills!
Summary:In this article, we have explored three new ways to understand your Emotional Eating. The key takeaways are: that emotional eating is normal, there is nothing wrong with you, it’s important to look past the food you’re eating, and understand your nervous system and how this is playing a part in your tendency to turn to food. And that if you’re going to change your relationship with food, you also need to find different ways to ‘feel safe’.
Whether you’re seeking a better understanding of your own habits, or looking for actionable steps towards a healthier relationship with food, this offers some valuable insights and guidance around navigating the challenges of emotional eating, and guides you towards a new place to find answers that isn’t just focused on food and having a new diet to follow.
If you have any questions, or want to find out more about the programs I offer that address these issues and support a change in your eating and your nervous system, please contact me and book a free consultation to start your journey. Good luck and I hope that 2024 is the year that you break your emotional eating cycle.
Meet Our Contributor — Erin Todd
Erin Todd is a Health and Performance Coach with a special interest in addressing emotional eating, perimenopause, and optimizing mindset and nervous system health. As a qualified Functional Medicine Health Coach coupled with an 18-year background as a psychologist, she guides women through transformative journeys, aiding them in reshaping their relationship with food, improving overall health, and thriving. She targets barriers like self-sabotage, integrating behavioral and lifestyle changes covering sleep, stress, nutrition, exercise, and emotional well-being. Learn more about Erin and her work at www.findingyourflow.com.au.