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Mindful & Emotional Eating

In our food-abundant society, it’s easy to eat without truly thinking about it. Many of us mindlessly snack while watching television, working on the computer or driving. Some of us turn to food when we’re not even hungry, instead eating because we’re stressed, angry, bored or sad. This lack of awareness can lead to unwanted weight gain and feelings of guilt.

Many people struggle to align their food intake with their actual physiological need for nutrition. One way to deal with this is to be more mindful and aware during the eating process. We don’t always fully appreciate and savour the bites we take, so we end up taking more and more bites to achieve some level of satisfaction. Approaching food intake in a mindful way allows you to take back control of what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat.

Here’s what you need to know to make changes.

Honour Your Hunger Keeping your body fed when you are physically hungry may mean you have to start actively listening for and gauging your hunger. Use a hunger scale when you are thinking about eating that ranges from being completely empty to being so full that you feel physically ill. Are you hungry enough to eat an apple? If so, go ahead and eat the apple. If not, then you’re not quite hungry enough yet to eat. It will take some time for you to note your own hunger patterns and see how often you’re eating for reasons not related to physiological hunger.

Feel Your Fullness Be mindful of physiological signals that tell you that you’re no longer hungry. Learn to feel your fullness by abandoning the idea of needing to eat until your plate is clean. Instead, pause in the middle of eating and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you hungry enough to continue?

  • Do you feel satisfied?

  • Is the food enjoyable enough to merit any more bites or are you just eating because the food is there?

When you discover your fullness level, you can also identify whether that bite of food in your mouth should be your last one. At that point, do something to make it a conscious act, such as nudging your plate forward or putting your utensils or napkin on your plate.

Take Pleasure in Food We often overlook the true pleasure and satisfaction that can be found in the eating experience. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to eat?” Maybe that tub of off-brand ice cream that was on sale looks promising, but would a scoop of your favourite premium brand be more satisfying? Once you’ve determined what you really want to eat, be sure to eat without distraction in a pleasant environment. Place your food on a special plate to mark the occasion.

If you don’t love it, don’t eat it. If you do love it, be sure to savour the experience. Focus on the taste, texture and temperature. Stop when you feel full and satisfied. When we pay attention to our food, we take much more satisfaction in it and we become more aware of how much we’re putting into our bodies.

Curb Emotional Eating It’s not uncommon for people to turn instinctively to highly processed, sugary and fatty foods when stressed, sad, tired, upset or bored. According to the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Of those adults, 49 percent report feeling disappointed in themselves after eating the food. Forty-six percent say they also feel bad about their bodies after raiding the refrigerator.

Emotional eating can be a numbing, initially satisfying fix. But it will always be a temporary fix. Learning how to confront that cycle can ultimately lead us to a place where food is once again satisfying nourishment, not guilt-ridden punishment. Learning to differentiate between physical and emotional hunger takes practice. Here are five important distinctions to help you decipher whether you’re experiencing emotional or physical hunger:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.

  • When eating to fill an emotional need or void, you may crave a specific food, such as ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat to fill a physical need, you’re more open to a variety of options.

  • Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food that you’re craving, whereas physical hunger can wait.

  • You may continue to eat well beyond the point of physical fullness when using food to address an emotional need. For physical hunger, you’re much more likely to stop when full.

  • Emotional eating is significantly more likely to result in feelings of guilt than eating to satisfy physical hunger.

One of the best tactics for curbing emotional eating is to use the HALT technique. This is a series of questions to ask yourself when you are tempted to eat:

H – Am I Hungry? A – Am I Angry? L – Am I Lonely? T – Am I Tired?

Sometimes, the need may be deeper or more challenging to address if it’s dealing with sadness, anger or loneliness. Consult a therapist to help you work through these issues. It takes time, awareness and practice to become a mindful eater, but it’s worth the investment.

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