Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Socially Acceptable Addiction

If you’ve ever tried a diet, or read a diet book or even stood in line at the grocery store and read the covers of magazines you’ve seen the focus on the importance of WHAT TO EAT! It is the focus of almost every diet. Is there a magic food? Are there bad foods? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT? As a personal trainer I often deal with the what to eat question, and honestly it’s a very important question to ask. However I think there is an equally important question that often gets overlooked, and that question is WHY DO I EAT?
Have you ever asked yourself that? If you haven’t, ask it now. Why do you eat? The quick easy answer that sounds right is, because I’m hungry. If that’s your answer, then I applaud you but I think most people have a slew of other answers to the why question.

It’s been a long week, you’re exhausted and a large meat lover’s pizza sounds like just the thing you need. You’re sad or lonely and a bowl of ice cream with a sappy movie is sure to fix things. Maybe you got a raise, a celebration feast should follow. Any of those ring a bell?

Eating is more often than not, used to cope instead of used to satisfy true physical hunger. Kids learn it at an early age. They are given candy when they are good, or a toddler is fed to keep them from crying. Emotional eating, using food to satisfy your feelings instead of hunger, is considered normal and acceptable. In all truth though, when food is used for emotional reasons instead of physical hunger it follows the same rules as any other addiction. An alcoholic uses alcohol to numb painful feelings, or celebrate good feelings, or escape, or not feel alone, etc... Eating when you are not truly hungry is the same thing, the only difference is that it is socially acceptable and considered normal.

So, why do you eat? Are you thirsty? Often people feel like eating when in fact they are only thirsty. Are you tired, lonely, depressed, stressed, or bored? You may be happy, or excited, or it’s a holiday, or a celebration. Maybe you eat because “it’s there”. The candy bowl is there, so you take a piece. There are cookies in the break room, so you take one. There’s still one piece left, you’d hate for it to go to waste, so you eat it. Eating is also often dictated by the people we are around. If others are eating, we feel obligated to eat whether or not we’re truly hungry. Timing plays a role as well. It’s lunchtime, I better eat. Or, it’s Thanksgiving; of course I’ll stuff myself. I could go on and on. The point is figuring out the answer to the WHY for YOU. Then address it an appropriate way. When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it.

The correct reason to eat is because you are physically hungry. Food is fuel, it is not a friend, or a distraction, or a hug, or a nap. You don’t put gas in your car when the oil is low, so don’t eat when you really just need a nap.

So how do you change emotional eating? It’s not easy. But it is possible. I believe it starts with self-care. You start to pay more attention to yourself. No, that’s not selfish. It’s actually just healthy. When you’ve taken care of yourself it actually frees you from the need to be selfish, self-centered, or self-indulgent.

The next time you feel like eating start by asking yourself, “Why?” Listen to yourself. How are you really feeling, and what do you really need? If you aren’t truly hungry then what are you feeling? Once you figure that out, do what you have to to care for yourself. If need to treat yourself, DO IT! Just not with food. I suggest making a list of ways you can care for or soothe yourself without food. Things like getting a massage, talking with a friend, crying, watching a funny movie, exercising – you come up with the rest. Then put that list somewhere you’ll see it, and the next time you are tempted to eat when you aren’t hungry do something on that list instead. Satisfy the TRUE craving.

Part of self-care is also defining your own boundaries. Eating to please someone else while negating your own physical feelings isn’t beneficial or healthy. So stand up for yourself, take care of yourself, honor your true hunger, and be willing to say no when you need to. And then when you are truly hungry eat mindfully, enjoy and savor every bite knowing that your body needs it. It’s fuel, and it's darn good fuel.

* this was another article I wrote for my column in the local paper


  1. Great post! Most of the time when I feel "hungry" or that I "need to eat" I really am just thirsty! Then I drink a huge glass of water and I'm not "hungry" anymore. I've focused on this a lot lately to get the fluids I need and listen when my body needs it and when it actually does need food.

  2. I SO need this post. I am an emotional eater, a bored eater and a celebrate that the kids are in bed and I've survived another day eater.
    I need to remember to fuel myself instead of just feeding myself.

  3. I'm so glad this helped you both. It's so easy to do without even noticing it. I find that mindfulness, listening to my body and self-care are the 3 hardest things to do, but also the most rewarding