To say 2020 has been different than most years is putting it lightly. Maybe you’ve found your eating habits have changed. Maybe you’re eating different foods, eating more than usual, or maybe you’re eating less. Or if you’re like me, you’ve made more batches of peanut butter cookies than you can count. Sometimes we find our eating is not always related to our hunger. Often times our eating is driven by emotions such as boredom, stress, or the array of emotions we experience when living through a pandemic. During times of increased stress, our need to soothe feelings with food can increase. And sometimes we find the opposite is true, during the time of increased emotions we lose our appetite.
So how do we know if we’re eating due to hunger or some other reason? There are a few things that differentiate true hunger from emotional-based hunger. Often when we’re eating due to uncomfortable emotions, our hunger comes on quick versus if we’re truly hungry. True hunger usually comes on slower and we feel that familiar grumble in our stomach telling us it’s time to eat. Usually, if we’re truly hungry and we eat, the need to eat is gone. Typically when we eat as a result of emotions, food never fills the void. It’s like the itch you can’t scratch. There are several things we can do to help us recognize and reduce some of our emotional eating such as:
- KEEP A FOOD AND FEELING JOURNAL: Write down what you plan on eating before you eat it. Also, write down how you’re feeling at the time. Food journaling can help you recognize patterns in your eating such as frequent nighttime eating related to boredom or going too long between meals.
- TAKE 5: When you recognize you’re about to eat due to a reason other than hunger, take a 5-minute pause. Choose something else to do during this time such as drinking some water, clean a small area of your home, or just step outside and change your environment. Often doing another activity can distract us when we’re not truly hungry. Sometimes just hitting the pause button before turning to food can give us time to step back and reevaluate why we’re eating and if we really need to eat. And sometimes we need that food!
- EAT CONSISTENT MEALS EVERY DAY: Try to eat three meals every day and don’t go long periods without eating. Eating regular meals helps us distinguish between true hunger and emotional hunger.
It’s not bad to use food to ease our emotions. Many of us can think of a time we ate outside our hunger. Like snacking on a bag of chips during a TV show or indulging in some ice cream because it was a bad day. However, if you find food tends to be your main coping mechanism and you’re having difficulty navigating your emotions, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. At CHAS we have behavioral health specialists at our clinics that are here to help you.
One way we can recognize emotional based eating is to practice mindful eating. Eating mindfully involves an awareness of our eating, recognizing in the moment without judgment what, why, and how we are eating. The Center for Mindful Eating describes mindful eating as being aware of the nourishment opportunities available through food, acknowledging our food likes and dislikes in a nonjudgmental way, and honoring our physical hunger and fullness cues.1 Sounds pretty good but how do we start? Below are some ways you incorporate mindful eating into your meals during the day.
PUTTING MINDFUL EATING INTO PRACTICE:
- HUNGER CHECK: Before you start eating ask yourself how hungry are you? Maybe you ate recently and aren’t really that hungry. In this case maybe you don’t need to eat as much as a full meal would provide.
- SLOW DOWN: When we slow our eating, we can enjoy our food and pay attention to when we’re getting full. Try sipping water throughout your meal, chewing your food well, and setting your fork down between bites to help extend your mealtime.
- TAKE A MEAL HALFTIME: Checking in with our hunger throughout our meal helps us recognize when we’re getting full. One way to do this is to take a pause when you’re halfway done with your meal. I like to call this a meal halftime report. Halfway through your meal take a minute to put your fork down and sip some water. Ask yourself how full you feel. Do you need more and if so, how much? Maybe you just need a few more bites or maybe you need the rest of your meal.
- ENJOY YOUR FOOD: Take time to slow down and truly enjoy the taste and feel of the food in your mouth. Most of us can think of a food we truly enjoy and can imagine how that food smells, tastes, and feels in our mouth. Take time to appreciate these aspects of your food in the moment when you are actually eating it.
Like anything else in life, eating mindfully takes practice. Consider starting by picking one meal each day to focus on your mindful eating practice. You may forget one day and that’s okay! One of the main principles of mindful eating is nonjudgment and this applies to the actual practice of mindful eating. The next meal or the next day is another opportunity to practice your mindful eating.
Jen Loweree, RD