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We’ve all had that break-up that had to be soothed with a tub of ice-cream, or that stressful workday which would not go away until we had a giant bar of chocolate. However, emotional eating can be detrimental to your diet, and, most of the time, a sign that an underlying wellness problem needs to be resolved.
According to Louise Adams, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist who specialises in eating disorders and emotional eating, ‘With emotional eating, dieting is barking up the wrong tree. You need to get to the reason behind the eating.’ This can be happiness or boredom, but Adams rates stress and anxiety as two of the major drivers of emotional eating. She says that you turn to food for comfort for the same reason others turn to alcohol or other drugs – because you haven’t been taught skills to cope with bad feelings.
‘We need to recognise that it’s OK to have a strong feeling that makes you feel bad – yet we have this idea in our culture that a negative feeling must be banished straight away,’ Adams notes. ‘Look how often we distract children with something like a biscuit if they’re upset. We’re not taught to ride out the feeling. Instead we learn to numb it with alcohol, eating or drugs.’
She continues, ‘Yet if you learn to sit with the feeling, you realise that it’s like a wave – it builds in intensity and then it passes. It’s very empowering to realise you can handle it. I think that as parents we need to teach kids that negative emotions happen, that we’re not happy all the time. If my five-year-old says she’s annoyed because of something her sister did, I’ll say, “Being annoyed is normal.”’
Instead of dieting, Adams recommends mindful eating, and gets her clients to use a zero-to-seven hunger scale that rates ravenous as zero and stuffed as seven. ‘Do your best to stop eating when you’re satisfied, at four or five, before the stuffed stage and to eat at slightly hungry, two to three, before you reach the ravenous stage – that’s when it becomes too easy to overeat. I get people to think of ‘ravenous’ as a punch on the arm and moderate hunger as a tap on the shoulder that reminds you to eat,’ she says.
Adams adds, ‘It’s also about slowing down and engaging with the food rather than eating while you’re doing something else such as working or watching television. If you’re not engaged with the food, not only can you miss recognising the fullness signals but you also miss out on the experience of enjoying the food. Emotional eaters feel as if they’re not in control, but the wonderful thing about mindful eating is that when you’ve mastered it, you feel you are in control – and if you keep practising, you’ll be in control.’