It starts with a trigger like boy problems, or maybe you’re down and out ‘cause one of your besties is ignoring you. Then comes the staring blankly into the fridge. Next minute, you’re elbows deep in leftover Thai and covered in crumbs from the family size bag of bbq chips you just devoured. You feel frustrated and ashamed (and a little woozy TBH) with a side serve of self sabotage. Guess what? You are not alone. It’s called emotional eating. Emotional eating is using food as a coping mechanism in times of emotional discomfort. We rarely get satisfaction from emotional eating and often feel guilty afterwards. Why? Because we are not actually hungry for food, we’re hungry for a distraction, possibly stress release, comfort, or to feel more in control.
The important thing to do is not freak out. The occasional over-indulgence isn’t gonna stuff up any long-term goals. But if your hard work is being undone then it’s time to focus on reconnecting with your body and confronting the negative emotions (instead of running away from them with food). Here’s how to combat emotional eating…
1. Keep a food diary
Firstly, you need to pinpoint your triggers. If a fight with your mum makes you rummage around in the freezer for the tub of ice cream, make a note. Include the time, what you ate, what you were feeling (including if you were actually hungry) and how it made you feel afterwards. You will soon notice any recurring patterns that help you identify what made you reach for the Ben & Jerry’s in the first place. (Remember to be kind to yourself! This is an exercise of self love, not judgement).
2. Change your reward system
When it comes to changes you can make to help combat emotional eating and its triggers, rewarding yourself and your achievements with food gets the boot. When girls on our online fitness program (Keep it Cleaner - or KICgirls.com for short) smash one of their fitness goals (e.g. a new running PB or nailing one of our 10 min strength challenges) we encourage them to reward themselves with other fulfilling activities instead like tickets to the movies, treating themselves to a bubble bath, buying that new lippy, or (our fave) getting your nails done. Try this for yourself.
3. Make a list
Grab your phone, open the notes app and write down some alternate ways to meet your emotional needs. Maybe it’s some deep breathing (our quick meditations from our online KIC fitness program are perfect for this), or listening to an empowering song (Run The World - Beyonce, please). This is not to distract you from the thought of food. Rather it’s to appreciate and put into practice some healthier ways to deal with those yucky thoughts and feelings that make you want to gorge and nom out of control. The next time the urge to indulge catches you off guard, simply pause, whip out your list and deal - the healthy way! By doing something different, you start retraining your brain to associate these alternate activities with feeling better.
4. Practise Mindful eating
Ever reached for another chip only to find there’s none left? Yep, we’ve all had a snaccident! Zoning out while overeating is very common. Like this, emotional eating is done in quite a mindless fashion. Identifying and overcoming this disconnection between the mind and the body is a big step in beating the overall problem. On KIC, we provide a delicious meal plan for our girls which is an effective way to gain back some control and a healthy relationship with food. Even something as simple as pausing to ensure you’re actually hungry before eating can help.
When you do eat, be more present by bringing your full attention to the food (taste, smell, textures, colours) as well as your physical and emotional reaction. Exercise, meditation and yoga are also great ways to reconnect with your body so that your food choices are more likely to support your overall physical and emotional wellbeing. Even if you don’t stop yourself from reaching for food in times of emotional distress right away, you might stop after a few mouthfuls and put it back, and this is positive progress (you go girl!).
5. Learn to love yourself
Most people report feelings of shame and self-loathing after they emotional eat. When you beat yourself up, you feel worse and are more likely to reach for food again - and ‘round and ’round we go. What you need most in times of emotional distress (before or after emotional eating occurs) is not self-criticism or judgement but more self-acceptance and self-compassion. You have to remind yourself that everyone struggles with something and that you’re worthy of love, support and acceptance from the most important person, which is YOU. If this is difficult for you, we highly recommend you seek support from a qualified professional who can give you strategies to start breaking your cycle of self-punishment and learn to love and care for yourself.
At the end of the day, you can’t be too hard about yourself to yourself. You are a person who gets to enjoy life! Remember, you can reset, recharge and start over.
Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw are the founders of KICgirls.com. Their 28-day program is inspired by the girls’ love for boxing, running and strength training. And as the girls are also massive foodies, KIC’s food planner is one of the best going around. From tacos and pad Thai to smoothies and raw desserts, their menu will fuel you with energy and nutrition to help you take on the world.