By Angie Holstein, MSW ,RSW (Individual, Adolescent and Family Therapist)
There is a strong connection between our mental health, food and weight loss. A 2004 study called the Canadian Community Health Survey found 20% of Canadians 18 and older were obese and 41% more were overweight. In children and adolescents, 8% were obese and 18% overweight. It is well understood that mood and eating habits are deeply connected. Having a substantial amount of negative thoughts, distressing emotions and unhealthy behaviours contribute to poor mental health. Gaining a strong understanding of this is key to supporting the psychological part of your health and wellness goal.
Eating healthy, losing excess weight and increasing physical exercise are important life goals to consider.
Know that making a lifestyle change is often uncomfortable and distressing at first. Anticipate that change can actually make you feel worse at first before you start to feel better. The point is not to give up. Having a plan and dealing effectively with setbacks with emotional eating will be the key between making this change to a life style change versus a diet. Learn to manage your emotions and negative thoughts about yourself to support your goal. Take an approach to this goal by dealing with the problem of overeating from the inside out.
Quick Tips to Manage Emotional Eating:
Keep a Food Diary: What, When, Where, How much, Feelings and Thoughts. Over time you will start to investigate and examine the patterns revealing your connection between your moods, thoughts and food habits. Knowledge and awareness is power.
Manage Stress and Get a Good Nights Sleep: Sleeplessness and chronic stress are the underlying contributors for a lot of clients in my practice for not only weight gain but depression, anxiety and overall poor mental health. Poor sleep and feeling tired typically increases stress and negative emotions. It’s hard to make good decisions and have balanced thinking when we are tired. Research tells us that chronic stress not only prevents you from losing weight, but also adds on pounds. When we are stressed, our bodies release stress hormones (the fight or flight hormones) that have been correlated with belly fat. Try yoga, meditation, being silly and being social to deal with this. Research tips to manage stress and keep trying to integrate these methods into your life. They can be simple things. (Dear Stress: Let’s Break-Up!)
Learn to Interrupt Your Habits and Patterns: This can be done by doing a hunger reality check. Am I really hungry? What is happening emotionally right now that is making me feel hungry? Am I tired, bored, anxious, sad, lonely? Think about behavior options to replace your typical pattern of mindless eating.
There are some interesting suggestions available online called 100 Replacement Behaviours for mindless eating, such as take a pause with a breathing exercise, drinking really cold water which gives our nervous system a little bump, watch a funny video on you tube, play with your pet, anything to distract yourself. We know that we have a quarter of a second to interrupt our typical patterns so having a plan ready will support this interruption and be compassionate to yourself with setbacks.
Dealing with Family and Friends: Family and friends are part of our patterns of behavior. Have you effectively communicated to those in your life about the goal you are embarking on? Have you asked them for what you may need? When you make a change it affects those around you – people in your life may unknowingly try to get you back to what is familiar. This can show up in forms of teasing, put downs and pressure to stray from your plan at gatherings and visits. Eating is such a social act. Your changes can also trigger self doubt and guilt in others who may not be at the stage you are to make changes. It’s important to identify and talk about these experiences and persevere with your plan.
Buddy system: You can be a leader to others by asking them to join you as a buddy in creating a healthier lifestyle. Social support is an important part of overall wellness.
Learn From Setbacks and Let Go of Being Perfect: Change and transformation is a journey and you can learn a lot when you take a mindset of learning. Be good enough in your goal instead of striving for perfection. When you have a moment or day of emotional eating, forgive yourself, say the words outs loud and start fresh the next meal or day. This should be part of your goal; a solid section on self compassion, forgiveness, and ways to get back to your wellness goals. Every day try to focus on the positive changes your making and try the technique of self-praise. This will interrupt those typical patterns that take you down the road of self-doubt and thinking poorly about yourself. We know that is a trigger for most people towards more emotional eating.
Don’t get caught in thinking traps: This is all or nothing thinking. Most of us have had those times when we stray from our daily plan and then say to ourselves “well I’m off track now, I failed again” and decide to let the whole plan go. Get in touch with these thoughts and don’t use it as an excuse to go off your eating and fitness plan. Remind yourself that you can get back on track and follow your plan for setbacks to minimize the number of them. Being aware of negative emotions and thoughts will help you take charge of them instead of automatically responding to them.
Mindfulness: Research has proven over and over again that infusing our minds with relaxation and calm has a direct link with overall physical and mental health. This is an important tool to manage emotional eating, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, chronic health challenges and sleeplessness. Mindfulness has proven to reduce the release of stress hormones (the fight or flight hormones) that have been correlated with belly fat. There are many ways to be mindful.
Mindful Meditation and Breathing: The ingredients for mindful moments are engaging in an action with intention (on purpose instead of automatically), a mental focusing tool (a guided meditation/breathing work) and a non-judgmental stance; meaning a moment of being kind to yourself.
Visualization: Can you visualize yourself accomplishing your daily goal, imagine your healthier, lighter, happier self? When you catch yourself thinking negatively, remind yourself of other situations when you have made positive changes. Tell yourself you can do this.
Mindful Eating Practices: Avoid eating in front of the TV, computer or while driving. Pay attention to the experience of eating, tastes, texture, feeling of full and gratitude. Explore this topic and apps like “www.donothingfor2minutes.com”, “www.Stop BreathThink.com”.
Start connecting: You’re likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Talk with friends and family, join a support group or start attending “meet-ups” to get connected with others who share your interests. Being lonely and isolated increases negative emotions and decreases our self worth. Seek support from your network or a therapist to develop an action plan to get more connected.
Set Yourself Up For Success: Scan your environment. Don’t keep too many comfort foods readily available in your home. Have healthy snacks prepared. Don’t grocery shop when you are feeling negative emotions. It’s better to postpone and engage in an activity that you have learned soothes your emotions.
Seek Professional Help: We all need help at times in our life. Overeating and being over weight are often symptoms of mental health problems or poor self worth. Seek support from a therapist, nutritional counsellor, personal trainer and physician as well as holistic health options such as acupuncture, Naturopathy etc.