While food is necessary to fuel the body, it is also closely attached to emotions. Food that tastes good is pleasurable to eat. If it smells and tastes good, we want to eat a lot of it and eat it often. It is a prime example of the pleasure principle at work associating food with pleasure. Secondly, food is often associated with positive emotions. Holidays and celebrations are frequently centered around a meal. When we gather with friends for a social occasion, a meal or snacks are always there. As humans, we learn through association. Just like Pavlov’s dog who learned to salivate when the bell rang before being fed, humans learn that certain types of foods are associated with happy emotions. This is one of the ways that we develop emotional attachment with food.
Note: The emotional attachment with food is a complex topic that is beyond what can be covered in this post. If you follow a low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet, replacing cheat foods with healthy keto alternatives can be an effective strategy for emotional eating. To learn how to make healthy alternatives to your favorite cheat foods, check out this FREE book offer from the BodyReboot program. For further reading on the topic of emotional eating, there is some suggested reading at the conclusion.
Fixing Stress or Unhappiness with Food
So what happens when we are stressed or unhappy? For most of us, it is common to turn to our favorite foods. And by favorites, I don’t mean a garden salad with balsamic dressing. I’m talking about chocolate, ice cream, donuts, chips, pizza, or whatever your favorite comfort food is.
We call these foods comfort foods because they are supposed to bring us emotional comfort. We reach for the foods that are associated with happy emotions in hopes that eating them will make us feel better. Only, it never does. It just makes us feel physically worse, and perhaps even emotionally worse.
Develop a Strategy for Emotional Eating
If we understand the food and emotion linkage, we can develop a strategy to deal with the challenge. Trying to understand all of our emotional connections with food can be helpful. However, that could take weeks or months of inner work, and it’s not necessary to make changes. Instead, developing a strategy ahead of time can help change our eating behavior.
The fact is that we live in a stressful world. It would be silly to assume we will never be stressed or unhappy again. Vowing to be stronger and have more willpower the next time is not a successful strategy. The nature of stress and unhappiness is that our willpower is weakened or depleted. Therefore, we need to plan ahead for times when we are stressed or unhappy. We need to develop the strategy now so that we will use later.
Here are 4 ways to overcome emotional eating:
Strategy #1 – Choose and prepare new comfort foods.
If you are following a low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet, there are a number of recipes available online as well as books for purchase with keto sweet treats and desserts. If you are a person who likes sweets, pick one or two treats and prepare them ahead of time. When you are feeling stressed or even if you just feel you deserve a treat, you will be able to reach for something that’s on your diet plan instead of a cheat food.
Strategy #2 – Remove bad foods from your environment.
If cheat foods are in your refrigerator or pantry, there is a good chance you will eat them. Throw them out when you have the willpower and presence of mind. I know it’s hard to waste food. It also feels like you are throwing money away. However, how much more will it cost you in energy, self-image, and self-esteem if you continue eating those foods. Just throw them away. You’ll feel better when they are gone.
Strategy #3 – Reframe old comfort foods as unattractive.
Just as certain foods can be associated with positive feelings, they can also be associated with negative feelings. One of the ways to avoid comfort foods is to change how you think about them. This unlearning process is called reframing. Reframing is changing the association that your current comfort foods have from positive feelings to something that evokes negative feelings.
If your favorite comfort food is ice cream, for example, try mentally associating it with something you don’t like. Instead of thinking how good the ice cream tastes, think of how bad it makes you feel afterward. Visualize the ice cream container looking like an overweight and out-of-shape version of you. Another idea might be to think of the ice cream container having a poison marker on it. Choose whatever negative image you like, and mentally associate it with your favorite comfort food.
Strategy #4 – Focus on who you want to be, not what you want to do.
Trying to control what you do is a losing battle because it doesn’t address your subconscious mind. Focusing on your identity in choosing the kind of person you want to be modifies your beliefs. You can choose to be the kind of person who reaches for junk food every time you are stressed. Or, you can choose to be the person who reaches for a clean treat or goes for a walk when you are stressed.
It’s a subtle difference between focusing on what you do versus who you are (or want to be). However, this small change in perspective produces tremendous changes in thought and action. The reason is a psychological principle called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance says that people will not consistently act in a manner that is inconsistent with their identity. In other words, a person’s behavior will always come into alignment with how they see themselves.
By focusing on the type of person you want to be, you gain two important psychological benefits. First, it is easier to make healthy choices when you are stressed or unhappy. You don’t have to think about what you want to do. Your first thoughts will be to reach for the right kinds of foods because it is consistent with who you are.
Second, if you happen to slip up and grab the wrong food, you will be easier on yourself. You can forgive yourself and feel confident that you will do better next time. You’ll feel this way because you know you’re not the kind of person who always grabs cheat foods every time you’re stressed. So what if you made the wrong choice this time? You’ll do better next time. After all, that’s who you are!
Food isn’t just about fuel, it’s also about feelings. Feelings are hard to control especially when we are stressed or unhappy. Instead of trying to control them, developing a strategy for changing emotional eating can be helpful. Develop the strategy ahead of time so you won’t have to think about when you need it.
Use these four strategy tips to change emotional eating behavior: First, choose and prepare new comfort foods that fit within your diet plan. Second, get rid of the cheat foods you have in your refrigerator or pantry. Third, reframe your favorite cheat foods by mentally associating them with negative images or outcomes. Finally, focus on the image of who you want to be instead of what you want to do or not do.
At the time of writing this post, we are giving away free copies of the Body Reboot book to help people lose weight and get healthy! Just cover the small cost of shipping, and we’ll send a FREE copy to your door. Go over to this page to see if copies are still available!
Suggested Reading on Emotional Eating
Bright Line Eating by Susan Peirce Thompson
The Pleasure Trap by Douglas J. Lisle
Breaking Free from Emotional Eating by Geneen Roth
Forever Fat Loss by Ari Whitten