Eating is probably one of the most natural things in the world. We need to eat to live, and to live well, enjoying food is a big part of it. Unfortunately, our motivation for eating is often unclear due to a variety of factors. Socioeconomic demographics, generational values and our care-givers relationship to food can be huge influences in the way we relate to food as adults.
It's important to note that eating as an adult is very different than eating as a young child. As a child, food is very structured. We have 3 meals and 3 snacks per day. This is mainly to provide structure and ensure the energy of the child is balanced. Additionally, children don’t have much control or choice around food. So, it is important to notice that children don't have the choice to decide WHEN or WHAT to eat, nor are they mature enough to understand the WHY behind their food choices.
Why is this important? Because so often in my coaching practice, I see full grown adults struggling with their relationship to food and they don't know why. Their lives have been hijacked by anxiety, fear, shame and guilt.
I am here to crack that emotional eating code for you!
1. Attachment to Labels
Organizing an eating schedule around breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks like we did as kids creates a rigidity that as adults we cannot often abide by. Spontaneous work and family obligations, travel and other joyful life things that as adults we have the privilege of enjoying cannot coexist with a rigid food schedule. We must grow the inner child to trust in the fluidity of being an adult.
We do this by learning to eat more intuitively. This means being in touch with hunger cues and being prepared when the time arrives. It also means understanding what your body needs for you. It’s taking back the When and What. This is the agency adults have.
2. Scarcity Complex
This is another belief we picked up as children. Remember when your caregiver told you to finish everything on your plate because food is expensive and there won’t be anything else to eat if you don’t? This belief is one of the root causes of compulsive eating and directly disconnects us from the part of ourselves that has trust in the goodness of the world. Preserving this innocence is so key in the development of well-adjusted adults.
It is this lack of trust that is one of the main contributors to emotional eating. That deep rooted fear that if we don't finish everything on our plate or eat the free food from work even if we aren’t hungry or that isn’t what we want, we are inherently bad people. We are selfish, wasteful and ungrateful.
However, as adults we have choice. Choice is available at any time and has no judgements. It is up to us to learn the tools to slow down enough to understand what motivates our choices and then develop the skills to relate to those choices with compassion. Once we install these tools and skills, we can begin to truly build trust in the abundance that is available for us. It is from this core belief that we can begin to heal our emotional relationship with food.
3. Soothing Mechanism
From a young age, we were conditioned that food helps to soothe discomfort. If we cried as babies, we got the boob or bottle. If we were celebrating a win or a birthday there was food involved. We are trained that food immediately makes everything better and happy.
Now, don’t get me wrong – food as joy can be wonderful if internally regulated, and there is an understanding of the WHY behind the eating. But so often, as adults we forget to ask the why before diving headfirst into last night’s leftover dessert after a long day where we felt inadequate or insecure.
One of my biggest tools for helping clients overcome emotional eating is to offer them this tool.
Be willing to feel into the sensations of your body as you are about to reach for that trigger food. Ask yourself if you are physically or emotionally hungry. Physical hunger will feel like pangs and dizziness. Emotional hunger will feel like heart racing, chaos and urgency.
If you do not feel physical sensations or you know you cannot be physically hungry because you just finished a meal, then ask yourself what emotion is trying to speak to me. Until you get an answer pause. Develop substitutes for eating like drawing, painting, taking a walk outside, calling a trusted friend. Over time, you will recondition yourself with new soothing mechanisms and shift your relationship to food.
Remembering that eating was one of the first ways we connected to others as children is essential in creating a healthy relationship with food as an adult. Once we can uproot and compassionately re-integrate the ways in which childlike conditioned beliefs are quietly running the show, we will be free to explore, experiment and appreciate the joy eating as an adult does offer.
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Alana Kessler, MS, RDN E-RYT, is a registered dietitian, functional nutritionist, yoga and meditation teacher, speaker and author. Alana’s intuitive and creative approach to health and wellness has impacted thousands through her private practice and international yoga and mindfulness trainings and retreats. A graduate of NYU with a BA and MS in clinical nutrition. Her health, fitness, and lifestyle expertise has been featured in Aaptiv.com, Droz.com, EatThis.com, RD.com, Redbook, WomensHealthmag.com, and Vogue. For more information, visit her website below.