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Emotional Eating

Eating is one of life's most basic pleasures. Food appeals to our senses and adds to the enjoyment of special occasions. Eating for the sheer pleasure of it makes us happy to be alive. However, overeating may occur when food is used to buffer us from painful feelings. Overfilling ourselves may be an attempt to feel less empty inside. We eat for many different reasons, and sometimes we are not aware of why we are eating. Are we physically hungry? Or tired? Or upset? Or angry? Maybe what we really want is some time to ourselves, or a chance to vent feelings.

Problems with eating and weight are often a result of not paying attention to how we feel and what we really need. When we "stuff" uncomfortable feelings by eating, we cover up our true feelings and make it very difficult to discover what is really going on with us emotionally. An increased awareness of these underlying feelings is extremely important for achieving weight loss and maintaining healthy eating patterns.

One way to tune into feelings that lead to overeating is through mindfulness practice. This means paying attention to what is in the present moment. Applying this to eating involves noticing the body's cues that say "I'm hungry" or "That's enough." Some suggestions for mindful eating practice include:

  1. Eat one snack or meal a day without any distractions. Really focus your attention on what the food looks like and how it tastes. Take your time and savor it. How does it smell? What is the texture like? Is it pleasurable? Is it what you wanted? How do you feel after eating it?  
  2. Try eating until you feel comfortable rather than full. Since it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register a feeling of fullness, you are likely to overeat if you continue eating until you feel 100% full. Try stopping at 80% full and notice how your body feels.  
  3. Pause for 30 seconds to listen to your body and emotions. Is your stomach hungry, or is something else going on? If it is physical hunger, stop and ask yourself what would hit the spot. Sweet, salty, crunchy? What will satisfy your needs? Are you certain it is food you crave?  
  4. Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, when you eat, and how you felt before and after eating. This helps you discover the emotions that lead you to overeat.  
  5. Keep a variety of healthful foods on hand. Mindful eating won't work if you skip meals, don't eat healthful meals, or deprive yourself.

If you find yourself overeating, listen to the message behind it rather than condemning your behavior. Be curious about why you feel what you feel. Eating struggles may signal a need for self-nurturing and self-appreciation. Long-lasting change can only come through self-awareness, kindness with yourself, and a willingness to act on your own behalf. You may need support from your doctor, counselor, family member, friend, dietitian, exercise specialist, or a combination of these. Caring for your self and dealing with problems in a healthy way is a lifelong process that has many rewards. Want to know more? Resources at Duke include Live for Life, Personal Assistance Service, and mindfulness classes.