Eating can bring up difficult emotions due to dieting culture or your childhood relationship with food, and it can sometimes be hard to tease apart the physical cues of hunger from more complex psychological reasons you may be eating, says clinical psychologist Susan Albers. But mindful eating can be the antidote.
What’s helpful about Albers’s perspective—and that of any true proponent of mindful eating—is that the goal is not mindful eating to lose weight or mindful eating to restrict unhealthy foods. The goal is mindful eating to live better: How would it feel to eat without guilt, regardless of what is on your plate?
How do we understand our hunger cues?
For many of us, the perception of hunger has become skewed by dieting. People who become overly hungry between meals likely have any one of the following three things happening.
1. Blood Sugar: Our blood sugar level drops and that starts to put a lot of stress on our body. We become very low energy and overly hungry.
2. Cortisol: When we get overly hungry, we get irritable because we’re stressed out. Cortisol, the stress hormone, starts to flood our body when we get really hungry.
3. Neuropeptide Y: When we get hungry or stressed, our body releases a chemical called neuropeptide Y that is associated with aggressive behavior. For our distant ancestors, that was probably helpful because in order to get your dinner, you had to be more aggressive and fight. But in today’s world, people don’t like you very much when you’re hungry and aggressive. You can curb this rise in neuropeptide Y by eating more protein and fiber.
That’s what’s likely happening, physiologically, when we’re hungry, but I also work with clients on everything else that drives us to eat, which tends to be more psychological. I believe that a lot of our eating has nothing to do with hunger but rather is connected to our emotions. We eat because we’re bored, stressed, anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed. We also eat to procrastinate or to entertain ourselves. And this emotional eating becomes a deeply ingrained habit.
Who is likely to struggle with emotional eating?
Emotional eating is common for all people but especially for people with eating disorders who use food to soothe and for people who have experienced food insecurity in their lives. If you were raised to avoid wasting any food on the table, that may translate later in life to eating very quickly and having various emotions, like guilt and fear, come up while eating. Whatever our background, history, and culture around food, it impacts our eating habits in the present.
Many of my clients express remorse that they enjoy food as much as they do. But I’ve seen the other side of it, where people don’t have access to food, have issues with eating, or simply don’t enjoy eating. Part of my mission is to have people appreciate food and savor it without feeling guilty.
What work do you do with clients around emotional eating?
Becoming mindful is the antidote to emotional eating. I have my clients pause before they eat, then check in with themselves to ask: “Is this an emotion that’s prompting me to eat?” Oftentimes, we think, I’m hungry, and then we make a beeline straight to food. We don’t even stop or pause for a second. It’s only later that we may think, Oh, food wasn’t really what I wanted or needed. I encourage my clients to pause once they have that first thought of hunger and see if there are any physical cues that would let them know they’re actually hungry—like low energy or a growling stomach. It’s a matter of responding, rather than reacting, to our thoughts. Once people get in the habit of slowing down that knee-jerk reaction to eat, they can start to eat more mindfully.
“Becoming mindful is the antidote to emotional eating.”
The next step is tuning in to the feeling and identifying it so that you can find the right response (if it’s not physical hunger). Not every action always matches a feeling correctly. For example, if you’re anxious, you need to do something soothing, and sometimes we use food incorrectly as that soothing thing. If you’re bored, you need to find something entertaining to do, but eating can also be entertaining. It’s critical to pinpoint exactly what that feeling is so that you can respond to it properly, in a mindful way.
I also have my clients write out what I call “the five-minute plan” to use when they feel inclined to emotional eating. I’ll have them write down five ways to relax (such as a bath, playing music, or meditation), five ways to entertain themselves (like reading or cleaning), five ways to soothe their senses (such as applying essential oils or changing into warm clothes), five places to go that are comforting (perhaps their bed or outdoors), as well as five people to call and connect with. This gives them options.
Sometimes when we feel like we need to eat, we really need relaxation, entertainment, soothing, comforting, or connection. It’s normal for food to sometimes offer that soothing, too, but it’s usually fleeting. If eating is the only way you know how to relax and calm down, you may want to work on developing additional strategies.
What are your tips for how to eat mindfully and avoid emotional eating?
Mindful eating is about bringing awareness to what you eat and being present with it because we have a lot of mindless eating habits. There are practical things you can do to shift those habits:
Sit while you eat. “Always eat off your feet” is my motto. There was a study that showed that people ate more chocolate while walking than when sitting. Sitting helps increase our focus when we eat, so we become more in control over how much we consume.
Slow down your chewing. You can even try putting your fork in the opposite hand, which requires more effort and slows you down, so that you can truly savor each bite. On the very first bite, savor the smell, taste, and flavor of what you are eating, because with each bite, we start to become habituated to the taste and continue to eat without savoring our food. I also recommend checking in with yourself between bites. Ask: Am I satisfied here? Or should I keep going?
Simplify your environment. People often struggle with choice overload or decision fatigue with food. Simply trying to decide what to eat for dinner can be paralyzing without knowing what you want or where to start. One thing I recommend to clients is a theme night. Maybe Monday night is Italian so that when you go to the grocery store, you know you’re getting something Italian-themed. This helps narrow down millions of food choices and simplifies meal planning.
Consider where you place your food. Keep a bowl filled with healthy snacks by the door of your house. If you’re leaving to run errands, throw a snack in your bag on the way out the door to make sure you have something healthy nearby if you become hungry. I keep this in mind with my refrigerator, too: I make sure fruits and vegetables are visible, because if you put them in the crisper, you forget about them. At work, you can harness this principle by keeping healthy snacks, like almonds, roasted chickpeas, or fruit, in view on your desk.
What are some general principles for picking foods that will help keep hunger at bay?
To keep you full longer, fiber, protein, and nutrient-dense foods are helpful. In the morning for breakfast, it’s easy to have a bagel or muffin when what we really need is a good dose of protein. I encourage my clients to step outside of the cereal box and eat a wide range of foods. In other countries, they’re not so strict with what are considered breakfast foods. In England, they eat baked beans for breakfast, which provide a good dose of nutrients first thing in the morning.
“Eat the foods you love but in a more mindful way, and embrace that.”
How do you reframe the diet mentality around food?
I encourage people to find strategies around food that work for them. Eat the foods you love but in a more mindful way, and embrace that. So many people diet over and over again throughout their life, which can be so damaging. When you restrict yourself, you don’t feel well because you aren’t feeding yourself well. Mindful eating as an alternative can reframe your relationship with food without deprivation.
Susan Albers, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating disorders, body image, weight loss, and mindfulness. She is also the New York Times–bestselling author of Eat Q as well as Hanger Management, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food, Mindful Eating 101, and more.