Welcome back to part 2 of our mini-series on emotional and other non-physiological eating behaviors. Now that we’ve identified some of the major reasons for eating, other than being physically hungry, how do we resolve them? Do we even need to resolve them?
I’ve grouped these emotional and other non-physiological reasons for eating into three main categories: 1) Normal behaviors (given modern culture, traditions, etc.), 2) Neutral but potentially destructive behaviors, and 3) Behaviors we need to address.
What do I mean by “normal” behaviors?
Birthday parties, weddings, family get-togethers and almost all other occasions which call for celebration revolve, to some degree, around food. Even if you aren’t very hungry, having a piece of birthday cake, or a few of your grandma’s tacos is completely understandable in one of these situations. In today’s society (and in longstanding traditions) food, or a particular type of food (cake at a wedding), is and has been an important part of celebration. Food tastes good, it makes us feel good, and it gives us a sense of connection to those around us.
There are obviously extremes (binging at these events), however eating in moderation while enjoying good company is by no means an eating behavior that needs to be addressed. There are times (weeks out from a competition) where you may have to tone-back on the amount you eat, or potentially abstain from eating altogether, however this is a very small portion of the time and varies on a case-by-case basis (how important the competition is to you, how much you can reasonably account/make up for later in that day or on a subsequent day, your level of conditioning, who this might offend, etc.).
Neutral but Potentially Destructive Behaviors
Boredom, procrastination, stress, distraction, etc. Eating for these reasons is what I would classify as neutral eating behaviors. I say neutral, because they are not destructive in-and-of themselves. You can eat because you are bored, stressed, or whatever, and nothing negative is guaranteed to come of it. If you control your total calorie intake for the day, and choose foods which support your health, then eating while you watch tv isn’t inherently a problem. The reason these things can become an issue, is if the aforementioned variables are not controlled for, and eating for one of the above reasons (especially while dieting), makes it more likely that this will occur.
If I were to ask you, “What is the hardest thing about dieting?”, what would you say? What makes losing fat so difficult? Hunger.
If you can control your appetite, you stand a much better chance of “winning” the dieting game. The issue with eating when bored, stressed, or to distract yourself, is that you’re eating when you aren’t really hungry. In a sense, you are “wasting calories”. Then later on in the day, when you actually do get hungry, you are put in a situation where you have to choose between one of two unfavorable scenarios because you’ve already consumed most of your calories for the day (assuming you want to stay in a caloric deficit):
1) To eat above your calorie target. This will either reduce or eliminate your deficit completely, and when done repeatedly (day after day), can result in a stall in fat-loss.
2) Stay within your calorie goal for the day, but have to spend the rest of the evening hungry and unsatisfied.
I don’t think anyone wants to be in either of these situations, however eating for reasons described in this category can put us there if we aren’t careful. And just for fun, if you had to guess, which of the above scenarios would you say is the more commonly chosen route…?
Before looking into specific solutions, the first thing you need to decide is, “Does this behavior even need to be addressed?” Some questions you can ask to help answer this question, are:
1) How often is this behavior happening? Rarely? 2-3x a week? Daily? Multiple times per day?
2) When it happens, how am I handling it? Am I able to stay within my calorie goal for the day, or is it causing me to overeat and therefore prevent further weight-loss? What types of foods do I steer towards when I engage in this eating behavior?
I’m not here to tell you to stop eating for one of these reasons. My goal is to make you aware of the process, what’s causing it, it’s frequency, and the outcome which is being produced because of it. If this is something you rarely do and you’re still making the progress you want, or you engage in the behavior in a “healthy” way, then you might not need to address it at all (or yet). In contrast, if this is something that’s happening a lot and it’s getting in the way of you achieving your goals, causing you to overeat on a daily basis, leading to feelings of frustration and disappointment, then maybe this is something you want to resolve.
If you came to the conclusion it would be best to resolve this issue, how can you do it? For many, just becoming aware of the issue is enough to solve it. It was almost an “unconscious” behavior before, but now that they are aware of it and the true magnitude of its effects, they will stop. For those of you who find it a bit more difficult to break your habit, try tweaking your behavior a bit at first, instead of trying to eliminate it entirely. For example, if you like to snack, and you’re having a difficult time eliminating this habit completely, a simple solution might be to modify this habit so it aligns with your goals and health (by choosing more satiating or lower calorie foods, etc.). This sounds simple and common sense-ish, and it is, but starting this way instead of trying to rid yourself completely of a habit you’ve had for a long time can be a great alternative, or make for an easier transition towards eventually stopping.
Other solutions include making these behaviors more difficult to engage in. Instead of having a bowl of M&M’s on your desk, or a bag on Snickers in your drawer (it might not be a terrible idea to replace these with something that is more conducive to your goals anyways, but who am I to judge), make these things more difficult to access. Instead of keeping food in a place where it can easily promote “unconscious” eating, keep it in a place where accessing it will turn this behavior into a “conscious” process. Instead of on your desk or in the drawer, keep it in a non-see through container at the opposite corner of your office, or in the breakroom. This may sound silly and childish, but it works. As you go through the process of walking towards, and opening the snacks, you will have internal dialogue with yourself about what you are doing, and whether you should, or shouldn’t do it. Now, this won’t work every time, but even if it prevents the behavior from happening 50% of the time, this is still a huge reduction in “unnecessary” calorie consumption.
There are unlimited strategies to resolving these issues if we feel it necessary to do so. It ultimately comes down to:
“What are my goals?”
“Is this behavior getting in the way of me achieving them?”
And if YES,
“How can I either eliminate, reduce (in frequency or magnitude), or modify this behavior in a way to where it DOES align with my goals?”
What’s Lies Ahead for Part 3
Our next installment is the part I’ve really been looking forward to writing. Taking a closer look at destructive emotional eating and strategies for how to solve it. These are things that can have a massive impact on your health and goals, and once resolved, will truly improve the overall quality of your life. Eating for loneliness, depression, to fill a void, fear, etc. can be truly destructive. If this is something you find yourself doing, this will be a useful article because I’ll discuss how can you identify it, admit it, and ultimately resolve it.
I hope you benefited and enjoyed reading this article. If there is anything you’d like me to write about in the future, please feel free to reach out to me at: stevetaylorRD@gmail.com. You can also find me on:
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