Do you find yourself stress eating, comfort eating or even boredom eating during your workday? That’s emotional eating–eating that we do that is triggered by feelings or desires or needs—not a physical need for fuel.
It’s the eating that happens when you’re procrastinating tackling a difficult project, struggling with writer’s block, or avoiding a difficult conversation. Emotional eating also happens when we’re trying to transform our feelings—like munching mindlessly in the late afternoon in an attempt to perk up or re-motivate. Emotional eating is a major cause of weight gain, weight loss difficulties, and weight re-gain after weight loss. It can be a major issue for many busy business owners and professionals who feel like they are facing a mounting to-do list, challenging projects, financial challenges, and too-little time.
Before you reach for the chocolate—here are three ways to avoid emotional eating during your workday and build skills and awareness that will help you take charge of future challenges with emotional eating.
1. Identify what you are doing
Lots of emotional eating happens on autopilot. When we eat without our full awareness we eat more, we often make poor choices, and we don’t even fully taste and enjoy what we are eating.
Don’t put food where you can reach for it mindlessly. Use strategies that maximize your awareness of what you are doing—don’t eat while you are working—in fact, set a personal policy of not multitasking at all while you eat. If you are feeling cravings or urges to eat that aren’t hunger-driven, say what you know about what’s going on—actually say it out loud (and without judgment). “I’m not physically hungry but all I can think about are those cookies. Something is triggering me to think about eating even though I don’t need fuel right now.” You might feel silly, but don’t skip this step. If you are surrounded by other people and you can’t really talk to yourself, pull out a piece of paper and write it down. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything more than “I’m not really hungry, but I want to eat.”
2. Explore your craving
That urge to eat probably didn’t pop up out of nowhere. The five minutes (or less) it takes to stop and explore what’s going on will be worth it. Without judgment, try being a detective. See if you can identify what your craving is really about. Pull out a journal or type on your computer for a few minutes (yes, I know you’re busy. Just take a FEW minutes). If you can, you might want to go for a short walk while you think. Why is eating suddenly so appealing? What was happening before you were thinking of it? What would you be thinking of if you weren’t thinking about food? What makes this hour different from one when chocolate (or whatever you are craving) wasn’t calling to you? Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and notice what comes to you. If you figure anything out, be direct with yourself and say that out loud too. “I’m not hungry but I’m focusing on eating candy. I just realized it’s because I’m really stressed out about this presentation I need to get done and I’m worried about whether it will be good enough” If you hit pay dirt here, you’ll now find you have a different problem. The problem isn’t really about eating or not eating, it’s figuring out how to take care of yourself and the feelings or issues you just identified.
Sometimes, simply identifying the real cause of your hunger will be enough to shift how you feel. Sometimes you’ll need to move to a strategy that addresses the real need or issue.
3. Create Options
It’s much easier not to turn to food if you have a plan for what you can do instead. Take the information you gathered in step two and start developing a list of everything you can think of that you could do to take care of that feeling or need in addition to eating. It’s not about NOT eating, it’s about figuring out what you can do INSTEAD. Take a break, switch tasks, drink a glass of water, go wash your hands and put on lotion, commit to spending fifteen minutes on the task you are avoiding….You get the idea. Put the list somewhere where you can see it and can add ideas as you think of them. Don’t censor your ideas for being unrealistic or impossible. Write down every strategy (big or small) you can think of to do in response to worry or anxiety or tiredness or boredom (or whatever you have identified). Make a commitment to try two of those things, this week when the emotional eating urge hits and tweak your list as you go.
Are you a smart, busy woman struggling with emotional eating, overeating, and balancing work and life? Claim your free psychologist-designed audio series:
“5 simple steps to move beyond overwhelm with food and life” at http://TooMuchOnHerPlate.com. Just look for the yellow post-it note at the top of the page.
Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC, is a Psychologist, ICF Certified Life Coach, emotional eating coach, and the founder of TooMuchOnHerPlate.com, a company dedicated to providing smart resources to busy women struggling with food, weight and overwhelm.