By Joy Bauer, RD
Food was so simple when we were kids-we ate when we were hungry and stopped when we were full. (Ever catch your 5-year-old daughter tossing her half-eaten doughnut in the garbage because she's had enough? What a concept!)
But as we get older, we often use food in a different way: We eat when we're happy, sad, lonely, anxious and even just plain bored. Who hasn't polished off leftovers just because they were, well, there?
We all eat a little too much from time to time, but eating in response to feelings rather than hunger can harm your health, both physically and psychologically. Many of us will eat more when emotions are the driving force, yet food provides only temporary relief. Once your spoon hits the bottom of that pint of cookies 'n' cream, the feelings remain-along with a hefty serving of guilt for eating too much.
Here's how you can kick the emotional eating habit, and recognize and respect your body's real hunger cues.
Think Before You Eat
Before you reach for that jumbo bag of chips, freeze-and ask yourself these questions (post them on your fridge as a reminder):
1. Am I really hungry? Rate your hunger on a 1-5 scale (1 = ravenous and irritable, 5 = stuffed and uncomfortable). If you're at 4 or 5, close the cabinet door. Sometimes, just pausing for a few minutes allows the urge to pass.
2. Have I had enough to drink? Often we mistake thirst for hunger. Before you reach for those chips, have a glass of water or sip a cup of tea, wait 20 minutes and reevaluate your hunger.
3. Will I truly savor this food? Think how you might feel after you eat those chips-satisfied or guilty? If you're eating out of emotion, chances are you'll feel guilty. If you do go ahead and dig into the bag, the fact that you've stopped to think about it will help you savor and eat slowly, and probably eat less. Enjoying food in moderation without judging yourself or feeling guilty is key to eating mindfully and not overeating. Photo: Alexandra Grablewski/Getty Images
Set Yourself Up For Success
Sometimes we're so busy taking care of others, we forget to take care of ourselves. You can minimize emotional eating by…
Not skipping meals. Eating every 4 to 5 hours throughout the day keeps your blood sugar levels steady and helps you feel full. In turn, you'll find you have more strength to fight off those urges.
Keeping a food journal. You hear it all the time, and for good reason: It works! Write down what you eat, noting your mood and rating your level of hunger each time. By keeping track, you stay accountable and can identify situations in which you're more prone to emotional overeating.
Exercising regularly. Even just a 15- or 20-minute walk can relieve stress and put you in a more positive mindset to make healthy choices.
Getting enough sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation can increase hunger by decreasing levels of leptin, the hormone responsible for sending the "I'm full" signal from your stomach to your brain. You'll also be less tired and have more resolve to resist the urge to grab foods for comfort.
Staying connected-whether it's with friends, an online community or health professional. Visit our Woman's Day Slimdown site ( WomansDay.com/Slimdown) for ongoing support, motivation, inspiration and tons of tips to stay on track. Check out the American Dietetic Association website and find a registered dietitian (RD) in your area at EatRight.org. And if you think that emotional eating is interfering with your life, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in treating eating disorders. A great resource for articles and eating-disorder health care professionals is EDReferral.com. Photo: Thinkstock
Have Something Else First
When you feel a binge coming on, try my "three-food interference" strategy for damage control. Before digging into the high-calorie food, first eat three (yes, three) of these healthy, low-cal options:
• 1 cup baby carrots
• 1 apple
• 1 orange
• Half a grapefruit
• 6 oz nonfat light yogurt (plain or flavored)
• 1 cup cherry tomatoes
• 1 sliced cucumber
• 1 bell pepper
• 2 cups chopped lettuce with 1 Tbsp low-cal dressing
Always have a variety of these foods on hand. Most of the time this will be enough to quash the urge-or at least fill you up a bit so you eat less of the "treat." After you've eaten three, if you still want the treats, go ahead. Photo: Shutterstock
Find A Distraction
1. Phone a friend you haven't spoken to in a while and catch up.
2. Paint your nails. No one wants to ruin a fresh manicure.
3. Listen to your favorite music. Whether it's upbeat or calming, there's bound to be something that works for you.
4. Clean your house, organize your closet or clean your purse. Anything to keep your hands busy!
5. Write it out. If you're stressed or angry, write a letter to whatever or whoever is making you feel this way. You may not send it, but at least you'll get the feeling out instead of trying to quash it with food.
6. Go for a walk around the neighborhood with your cell, iPod…or better yet, your children or spouse. Photo: Thinkstock
Joy's Bottom Line
Realize that you have the power to stop emotional eating. Recognizing the habit and what tends to set it off is a huge first step. Prepare for obstacles. Having everything in place to stop yourself (the healthy foods to eat first, questions in mind to ask yourself before you eat) will help you successfully fight the desire to binge. Wait it out. Time eases everything, including the urge to eat when you're not really hungry.
Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
Related Articles at WomansDay.com: