On days like today, I could eat everything that isn’t nailed down. I find myself sneaking into the kitchen…I rummage through the refrigerator for something to eat. I justify my nibbling by telling myself that after such a hard day, I deserve something satisfying. Munching makes me feel good…And after all the leftovers are gone, I still feel like I need something else. So I open up a box of cookies. I can’t stop eating them until I am way passed stuffed. Why does eating feel so good in the moment, and then I feel so much worse than when I started?
–Rachel, from “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food” by Susan Albers, Psy.D
If you find yourself identifying to the words above, you’re not alone – and you’re not crazy. Food has the power to reduce stress, bring comfort, and alleviate boredom. But it’s easy to start to rely a little too much on food as a coping mechanism. After last week’s post on the inner critic, I felt it was time to bring back the topic of emotional eating to our Healthy + Whole series: eating food in response to a feeling instead of eating to relieve hunger. For example, feeling overwhelmed, guilty, joyful, stressed, shameful, or bored can drive us to eat.
I will be the first to admit this is a struggle for me. After a long day, there’s something therapeutic to me about mindlessly downing a comfort food, combined with multitasking on my phone or computer. Or, after I’m in a stressful situation like a disagreement or confrontation, I might head to the cupboard for some dark chocolate or salty popcorn.
Running to food for comfort is a what’s called self-soothing technique, a method people use to cope in response to a stressor. Self-soothing techniques relax your body and calm your nerves, as a way of coping with the responsibility and stress of daily life. Downing chocolate chip cookies or a margarita after a hard day is perfectly reasonable occasionally, but ingraining those patterns is when it starts to become a problem.
For example, you might be using food to self-soothe if you find yourself repeatedly:
- Eating when you aren’t hungry, but can’t stop yourself
- Feeling guilty about eating when you do it for soothing rather than to stop hunger
- Snacking in a repetitive or trancelike state
- Searching for something to eat, but not finding something satisfying
- Continuing to eat because you can’t determine or find what you want to eat
- Eating as a way to relax, after a stressful event or when you are nervous
- Eating foods you don’t even like because they are there and you need comfort
- Snacking to avoid boredom
If you feel like your relationship with food is more about self-soothing than you’d like it to be, I’d like to offer an encouragement: you are not alone! People struggle with emotional eating every day. And by removing the stigma from our eating choices, we can learn to live into freedom instead of out of guilt! There are all sorts of physical and social reasons why we turn to food when we’re stressed or worried (which I won’t go into here). In fact, there are entire books written on how we can start using healthy coping mechanisms in response to life’s stressors. Meaning: you are not weird. I don’t know if that makes you feel better, but just knowing others have similar struggles makes me feel some validation.
My main source for this topic is a book called 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, written by a psychologist named Susan Albers. (Susan, if you ever read this, I am a huge fan.) She speaks with an incredibly compassionate and encouraging voice about ways we can cope with stressors in a healthy way instead of turning to food. I would highly recommend her book if this is a topic that resonates with you.
If you want to eat more intentionally, there’s good news: you can remove the desire to be perfect in your eating choices. Instead, focus on taking baby steps towards a new way of eating. Here are a few ways Susan suggests to soothe yourself instead of turning to food. Like anything, these are easier said than done. If I have a craving for a comfort food, the last thing I want to do is take a walk. However, striving towards some of these practices can be helpful; even just knowing there is an alternative to soothing with food is beneficial.
- Practice mindfulness by taking a mindful walk: be fully present and notice everything around you, including the scenery, each of your senses, etc.
- Start a journal to keep track of your feelings and help you analyze your situation in a more positive, realistic way.
- Practice mindful spiritual moments: find a short prayer, Bible verse or saying and repeat it several times until your urge to eat lessens.
- Sweat it out: either at the gym, or use your normal daily activities as a way to get endorphins going, like daily chores, running after kids, even an impromptu dance party.
- Try chewing on something that’s not food related, like a breath mint or stick of gum, or cope with an oral fixation by drinking plenty of liquids.
- Distract your brain with an activity like reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a movie.
- Share your struggles with a confidant who can be your cheerleader.
- Find a way to give something of yourself to others; start small with boosting someone’s self-esteem a compliment, or volunteer your time to help a friend or neighbor.
I’ve used many of these techniques with some degree of success. Another great examination of this issue is this past Healthy + Whole post written by our friend Kathryne Taylor of Cookie and Kate. She shares some raw stuff and is super inspiring.
How about you – do you have any tips for soothing without food? We’d love to hear from you.
Note: Binge eating is frequent and repeated overeating to alleviate stress or negative feelings. If you think you have symptoms of binge eating or another eating disorder, you may want to seek out professional support.
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.