I know it feels early to be mentioning Christmas for us too. However we feel it’s a good time to bring up this conversation about food while you have time to contemplate it.
Many celebrations involve food and for some it can send us into an anxious spin about holiday weight gain and un-doing any good ‘work’ they’ve put into their diet to this point. The media messaging is rich with talk of diets and restriction as if this is normal and helpful behaviour.
Conventional wisdom offers you these solutions to “help” you through the season.
- Don’t keep the food in the house.
- Eat before you go out so you snack less at the parties.
- Take a healthy snack with you.
However, have these messages ever helped you to be fully present and enjoy your Christmas? Perhaps you’ve noticed you feel less in control of your eating despite all the well intentioned efforts? Have you found yourself finding comfort in food, as the festivity overwhelm kicks in?
Emotional Eating is Normal.
Eating is central to the behaviour of people. Our eating behaviours are dependent on several factors beyond our physiological needs: hunger, genetic or metabolism (1). What this means is, that our environment and minds also play a role in food choice and consumption.
Emotional eating happens when our threat system is activated. Eating in response to threats is a normal response. You feel a threat, you eat as part of a calming strategy, you feel what you feel and then you move back to regular eating patterns once the threat has subsided.
Emotional Overeating Happens.
Despite what most people feel, emotional overeating is not just a lack of control, discipline or willpower. Emotional overeating usually occurs when we struggle to understand, manage and cope with our feelings.
Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles may be the root of your reliance on food to manage. We may not know how to engage in other effective stress reduction activities.
Emotional overeating may also be a result of internal and external pressure to restrict food intake. Studies have shown that dieting puts our eating under conscious cognitive control, which means you are thinking way too hard about eating (2). Of course it is advisable to support your health, however the irony is that our thinking brain is so caught up in the good and bad narrative about food, that we fail to hear our natural cues. Also the cycle of restrictions may be leading to erratic and emotional eating behaviours.
5 Intuitive Eating Ideas You Can Try This Season:
If you really don’t want to be facing another Christmas where you feel stressed about what you are eating, there is a way that you can bring the fun back into the food you eat this season. People who practice intuitive eating have learned how to eat according to what their body wants, not what their mind tells them.
Here are 5 ideas that you can start practicing today –
- Eat 3 meals every day – Simple right? But even committing to 3 meals a day ESPECIALLY if you have had an emotional eating episode will be transformational for you. Ensuring that you consume enough nutrition to fuel your body and activities is key. This will support you to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger (3).
- Stop, pause and think about what would satisfy you at this eating period. As you eat, connect in with your hunger before eating. Gently say to yourself all of the options are available to me. This means that you fight the inner critic saying you’ll need to run an extra 5km tomorrow to work this off. When we deprive ourselves of food, in the moment you might feel you have won. However the mind may linger on that mince pie and backfire later on as the desire heightens and this is how you end up overeating.
- Mindful eating has been shown to have a positive effect on food choice and eating to comfortable levels. This does not mean you need to chew 52 times and savour every moment – you can start by taking a breath. If you stop for 2/3 breaths you’ll provide your body with OXYGEN, which will calm your nervous system, kick off digestion and energy production in your cells. But more importantly, it allows you to enjoy the eating experience you are about to have.
- Be intentional with creating more calming feelings in your everyday life. With consistent new evidence emerging about the Gut-Brain connection, it is refreshing to know we can support our emotions through our gut (4). Stresses include fear of food, restrictive eating, overexercising, busyness, loneliness, eating guilt and shame and negative body thoughts. What we know about all these stressors, in particular prolonged stress, is that it is implicated in unfavourable neurological responses through the gut-brain axis and can create significant health risks (5,6,7). As Christmas gets busier, this is the time to make a conscious decision to look after our gut by giving it plenty of nourishment both from food and relaxing, calming behaviours.
- Show yourself compassion. It is important to remember that emotional eating is normal, occasional overeating especially around celebrations happens. Sounds easy however if you tend to beat yourself up when you engage in the behaviour, try offering yourself kind words. Remember the reality of indulging over a couple of days is not going to harm your health however the feelings of failure and guilt can have a far more significant impact on your mind and body(8).
Remember this eating does not require any special talents, it simply requires appreciation and respect both for ourselves and our food. Our bodies are amazing, they are always working on keeping us in balance. Focus on celebrating many of the wonderful things that Christmas can bring you and spending time with people who lift you up.
- Non-Communicable Disease Risk Factor Collaboration. (2016) Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19·2 million participants. The Lancet, 387(10026), 1377-1396.
- Evers, C., Dingemans, A., Junghans, A. and Boevé, A., 2018. Feeling bad or feeling good, does emotion affect your consumption of food? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 92, pp.195-208. Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29860103/
- Healthline. 2021. Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-eating#Emotional-hunger-vs.-true-hunger> [Accessed 20 September 2021].
- Anderson, S., Cryan, J., & Dinan, T. The psychobiotic revolution (p. 25). Washington: National Geographic Partners.
- Torres, S., & Nowson, C. (2020). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Retrieved 10 October 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17869482/
- Finch, L., & Tomiyama, A. (2015). Comfort eating, psychological stress, and depressive symptoms in young adult women. Appetite, 95, 239-244. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.07.017
- Bonaz, B., Bazin, T., & Pellissier, S. (2018). The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Frontiers In Neuroscience, 12. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00049
- Ferreira, C., Matos, M., Duarte, C. and Pinto-Gouveia, J., 2014. Shame Memories and Eating Psychopathology: The Buffering Effect of Self-Compassion. European Eating Disorders Review, [online] 22(6), pp.487-494. Available at: <https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Ferreira_.etal_2014pdf.pdf>.