Tackling emotional eating problems

Dear Tacit mental health column

Kim Silverthorn Master Practitioner of Clinical Counselling (M.P.C.C.) jpg, BN

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Dear Tacit,

I struggle with emotional eating problems – whenever I am stressed, I eat too much and I seem to crave a lot of sugar (well, ok – chocolate). Any suggestions?

Signed Nom, nom, nom

Dear Nom, nom, nom,

You are not alone. When we get stressed, our cravings for carbs and sugar increase – it’s a biochemical physiological reaction and it’s normal. The fact that you can recognize the habits in your own patterns is the biggest part of the problem. Now, you have two options: you can address your stress levels and take steps to keep the cortisol producing triggers in your life lower, whenever possible; and you can find replacement behaviours for the times when the stress is too high and the cravings begin.

There are some excellent food craving charts that you can find online which tell you what chemical it is that your body is actually needing when the cravings hit. And the charts give you healthier options for food substitutes which will satisfy the craving and not cause you to overindulge in too many bad sugars.

For example, when we crave chocolate, we are often low on magnesium – and eating nuts and seeds, legumes and fruit will take away the urges. Adding a magnesium supplement to your day is also an option if you see this pattern happening frequently.

Replacing the types of food that you eat when you are stressed is just one way you can change your behaviours. You also need to find alternative ways to manage the excessive cortisol (stress hormone) that is being produced in your system. If you increase your water consumption (and urinate much more frequently), allow yourself to cry and find ways to sweat more, you will definitely find that you decrease the food cravings that you experience because your stress hormone is being released in healthier ways.

And if you are emotionally eating for the comfort that your favourite foods give you, or because the process of eating is relaxing to you or affords you the sense of control you are not otherwise feeling in your life when your stress levels are so high, then you need to find other replacement habits that soothe and support you in all the same ways. Find ways to remind yourself that you are in control in your life and focus on the positive accomplishments you have achieved, to trigger the production of hormones that counter the stress in your system. Don’t try to handle your stress alone – reach out and talk to a friend/partner, see a therapist, join in with a group activity that you find fun or get connected to a community of some kind (religious/spiritual, creative, athletic, academic, hobby-based).

Create a new habit of forcing yourself to wait 30 minutes before you indulge in the food solution that you think you want – do something else during the waiting period and see if the distraction remedies the urge. While you are waiting, become reflective and try to determine what you are experiencing emotionally – just drawing awareness/attention to the real issue is often enough to stop the cravings. You can also have a big drink of water – often, we are more thirsty than hungry and we just need to learn the difference between those signals.

These are just some of the ways to try to manage your patterns of overindulging whenever you are triggered emotionally. There are many more, most of which require that you directly address whatever the issue is that causes the emotional trigger. We cannot run from ourselves and the food cravings you are experiencing might be the way that you are trying to tell yourself that something else needs your attention!

Stay tuned for next week’s article, where we discuss strategies for mindful eating practices – so when you eat, you do so with awareness and intent.

Take care.

Kim Silverthorn is a registered Master Practitioner of Clinical Counselling (M.P.C.C.) through the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association and the owner of/therapist with Tacit Knowledge, a local counselling agency in Beaumont. She has been providing therapeutic supports for more than 30 years.

If you have a question that you would like Dear Tacit to answer relating to any mental health issue, please feel free to email Kim at counsellors@tacitknows.com. This column is a psycho-educational support and is not designed to be a substitute for counselling.