Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
Part one in my series on getting back to basics for building a solid eating recovery.
Emotional eating. It’s so taboo. It conjures visions of pathetic women in their jammies eating ice cream straight from the tub while watching The Notebook, Kleenex box at hand, right after a bad break-up. No one wants to be that girl. So shameful.
And yet so human. From the soothing received at the breast or bottle to the urge to celebrate with a special dinner, we are all emotional eaters to some degree. As much as we may want to extricate our emotions from this most fundamental act, to do so denies our very humanity. Without this connection, we, as a species, would have been far less motivated to eat and proliferate.
While it can seem fairly straightforward to know what emotional eating is (using food or restricting food in order to suppress or numb emotions), it is more tricky to understand what it isn’t. In my practice, I often see clients who believe they are emotional eaters, but appear to have something else going on. Take Emily a 20-something grad student, for example. “I just can’t stop eating emotionally!” she complained on her first visit, “When I’m stressed, I eat. When I’m bored, I eat. When I eat certain foods, I feel so guilty I have to do something to fix it or I’ll go crazy!”
Easy diagnosis, right? Not so fast.
After reviewing her food logs, it became pretty clear that Emily not only had some black-and-white thinking regarding her food choices, but also her idea of “enough” was severely distorted.
“What if it were true,” I asked, “that sometimes what feels like emotional eating is actually the result of food restriction?” Her left eyebrow raised with curiosity. I continued, “What if it turned out that if you just gave your body what it needs (and what you really want), some of these symptoms would disappear?” After some discussion, we decided it was time to get back to basics and practice foundational eating.
Fact: It doesn’t matter if you eat all organic, free-range, raw, superfoods if you aren’t eating enough to begin with.
On your journey back to eating intuitively and more mindfully, it can be tempting to bypass the rote work involved while reaching for the ease and freedom promised by such methods. Unfortunately, as with any kind of transformation, the foundational work needs to happen or your house will fall like so many playing cards.
Adequacy is the solid base of your foundation. It’s the concrete, the essential component upon which your whole house will stand. Put simply, it means eating enough.
But what is enough and how do I know?
Great question. Our bodies come equipped with internal adequacy meters already installed: our hunger and fullness cues. If we pay attention, we recognize that hunger means it’s time to eat and fullness means we’ve had enough.
Unfortunately, these cues are easy to override. Never in history have we had such liberal access to so many dense energy sources. It is easy to overeat on these foods or eat when we are not actually hungry. Stressful lifestyles don’t help.
By the same token, hungers, both physical and other, can be suppressed, either by restricting quantity or type of food. When the body (or mind) is denied what it desires, we often experience this as deprivation. Regardless of whether we can mentally tolerate this lack, the body perceives all deprivation as the same, whether self-imposed (dieting) or not (living through an actual famine).
For example, have you ever eaten more of a forbidden food, just because you had the chance? Moreover, for most people, not eating enough food now means being extra hungry later, which frequently results in over-consumption or making less thoughtful food choices. Consider this: maybe if you had eaten the thing you wanted in a reasonable amount to begin with you could have avoided feeling out of control in the end. And full permission means less guilt.
So, what can you do to be sure you are eating enough?
1. Start by eating three meals and 1-3 small snacks every day.
2. Eat around the same time every day.
3. Check in with your body before the meal. Rate your hunger using a 5-point scale.
1 — So hungry I don’t even care anymore.
2 — Gotta eat NOW!
3 — I could definitely eat.
4 — Yeah, I could nosh.
5 — Not really hungry, but not full.
4. Check in with your body after the meal. Rate your fullness on a similar scale.
6 — Yeah, I’ve eaten a bit.
7 — Comfortably full and satisfied.
8 — Ugh, too far.
9 — Whoa, I feel sick.
10 — I can’t even…
5. Adjust the amount of food you eat according to how hungry and full you are. Try to avoid being hungry like a ‘2’ and full like an ‘8.’ It’s OK sometimes, though. There are no perfect eaters.
Trusting your body to guide you to “enough” can be harder than it sounds, but it’s the only way to transition to a more intuitive or mindful eating style. Have patience and be kind to yourself. It will come.
As for Emily? It took a few weeks of eating on a regular schedule, but she eventually started to trust her body’s cues again. She still has some trouble with eating while bored or stressed, but it seems more manageable, now that she is sure that she is not actually hungry when it happens.