Do emotions trigger your eating? A dietitian guides us through mindful eating

June 25, 2020

You might have read the post in which I wrote about my weight gain, and my attempt to get healthier and happier. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own eating, and how often it’s so “mindless” – I’m eating without thinking, and eating as a response to my feelings – nervous, worried, angry, and even happy.

I asked Justine Friedman, a registered clinical dietician and mind-body coach, to explain more about why we “eat our emotions”, and how we can get a better control of our eating and habits.

At a recent gathering of friends – yes in Israel we are allowed to be doing that now – a good friend announced that “Food is the enemy”. This gave me a lot of pause for thought as I examined the source of this challenge levelled against an essential element that literally keeps us alive. Without air, water and food we would certainly not be alive.

So why is this life-giving source of nourishment seen in such a negative light? Corona/ Covid19 or not this is a lifetime battle that many face and at this time of varying stages of lockdown the proverbial elephant in the room is at front and centre.

Social media is inundated with posts that range from fitness gurus posting Zoom lessons on different exercise regimes to the latest recipe craze that HAS to be baked and enjoyed and re-baked and consumed again. Food seems to be the focus of how we are filling our time.

Eating is more than just a physiological need that we fill. As human beings we are so tied in with the emotional and social aspect that food provides. At a time like this where socialising is not the reason for relaxed eating the emotional aspect is the biggest trigger.

So many of us eat in response to a variety of situations and emotions. Currently I believe that the biggest triggers are lack of our normal routines, lack of purpose, boredom, anxiety and fear over the future for many reasons be they financial, health or family related and the access that we all have to our pantries and fridges.

On the flip side many of us are in the mind-set of allowing ourselves the pleasure of eating as so many other external restrictions are being imposed on us so why worry about what we are eating on top of all of that.

My biggest concern as a clinical dietician with these triggers is the increased risks we face when poor food choices together with a more sedentary lifestyle and stress create. Without listing facts and figures the risks for heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and high blood pressure are increased substantially.

So how do we take better care of ourselves at a time like
this, bearing in mind that there may also be lack of availability to some
healthier options. How can we minimise the risks that we could face even when
less than nutritious choices are available.

Awareness is the starting place. Before eating stop and
reflect on why you are feeling a need to eat in the first place. Is it true
physiological hunger or is it an emotion or boredom that triggered you?

If the latter two are the reasons then one of the most important tools I teach my clients is relevant. Pause before eating and allow yourself the opportunity to identify what emotion has been triggered in you. The trick here is to name the emotion.

So for example if you identify that you were feeling angry or sad or anxious, say to yourself I am feeling ANGRY/ SAD/ ANXIOUS. Say it out loud or to yourself. The key is to name it and say it. So often the reason we are eating is to suppress this emotion and once it is acknowledged the desire to eat and suppress it more often than not goes away or the desire to overeat is reduced.

This is the starting point of building a relationship with
understanding when you are eating in a reactive way and it allows you to become
more of a responder by first addressing the emotion and then making a more
level headed, instead of knee jerk choice and decision on whether you still
want to eat.

When emotions dictate our food choices the underlying craving is often for a food that will give us a specific feeling. Sugar, baked goods, chocolate, crisps and gummy sweets all hit the spot in the moment but the rebound effect leaves one feeling flatter and in need of more of the same pick-me-up again. This creates a vicious cycle of cravings and energy dips.

The only way out of this is to keep your blood sugar levels as balanced as possible throughout the day by eating smaller and more frequent meals and snacks. If you are experience stressful triggers and you are hungry with a lower blood sugar level then you are more likely to fall victim to these foods.

Another factor that I would like to address is the ongoing debate around carbohydrates and the role they play in nutrition. Not all carbohydrates are created equal by which I mean that there are more complex and wholegrain options which may also be completely natural such as sweet potato, potato, oats, quinoa and corn and then some more processed but not unhealthy options like rice, pasta, low GI and rye breads.

The closer any food is to its natural form will always be best utilised by our bodies for fuel and the energy in these foods will be metabolised more efficiently. The more processed and preserved a food is the less efficiently the body functions in response to eating it.

What we eat a carbohydrate with is also incredibly important. If we are eating lean protein choices with a moderate amount of healthier fats and salad and non-starchy vegetables our bodies handle it well.

However, should we combine a perfectly nutritious potato with high fat like cream, cheese and butter the meal now becomes incredibly unhealthy. So it’s not just about one specific food group but how the different food groups are combined together that can either enhance health or create disease.

I would love to tell you all to go ahead and indulge and allow yourselves the enjoyment of cakes, biscuits, banana bread and the like but the truth is, that weight issues aside, they just aren’t nutritious not for our bodies or for our emotions and certainly not for the attainment of a positive state of mind.

If you must have them then consider the quantity and limit this. The key here is to still allow yourself to enjoy eating it because otherwise what on earth is the point! So take a smaller amount, put it on a plate, eat it slowly, savour every bite and move along.

As for those who really want to make better choices and who
would rather avoid the vicious sugar craving cycle here are some healthier
options to keep on hand.

Sugar free-salt free peanut butter which is delicious on a slice of thick toasted low GI bread. If you must make it a bit sweeter rather add a dash of honey yourself than choose the option with sugar added.

Other savoury options to put on are avocado, low fat cottage cheese, tuna with a light mayonnaise or boiled egg with some light mayonnaise. And please leave off the margarine or butter!  Add tomato, cucumber, a chopped pickled cucumber for some extra flavour.

To avoid the tiresome activity of preparing salad vegetables,
I always advise my clients (and I do this myself!) to keep ready cut salad veg
in the fridge. This allows you to easily add it to any meal without the added
hassle of preparing anew each time.

For the colder winter evenings and days make some homemade
vegetable soup with vegetables like baby marrow, carrot, celery and a little
sweet potato. A hearty vegetable soup goes a long way to filling the gap.

Raw nuts (in moderation) and seeds also make for a great snack and keep the body in a less inflamed state due to their healthier fat component. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are a great nush option. Combine this with a fresh piece of fruit and your blood sugar will stay stable for a longer period of time.

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My last piece of advice is to remember to stay hydrated. Yes drinking eight glasses of water a day is important. When our bodies are well hydrated they function better and thirst can also mimic as hunger if you haven’t had enough water to drink. So stay off the colddrinks and fruit juices, be mindful of too many cups of tea and coffee and hot drinks like hot chocolate. Good old water or even a tasty herbal tea is first choice.

This advice covers the general healthy population. If you suffer from any medical condition and you have been given sound nutrition advice from a registered dietician please follow it.

If you are concerned about your health or you feel that your emotional eating pattern is something that you would like to address seek out a certified dietician who does not promote fad diets and who will look at your eating in a holistic way. You are more than what you eat and any advice that you are given should take more than just food into account.

Struggling with thoughts (specifically obsessing over food
related issues) and feeling that food is the enemy does not need to consume our
lives. There is a way to learn to make peace with food, that we truly need in
order to survive, and to turn our food experiences into ones of nourishment for
body, mind and soul.

About Justine

Justine is a South African registered clinical dietician and mind-body coach who has been in private practice for over 20 years. She is now based in Israel but is available online for all appointments. She works in a holistic way including medical, dietary, emotion and thought patterns into every meal plan she creates. Each meal plan is individualised to the specific person she is working.

She has a particular interest in how thoughts and emotions affect our food choices and works successfully with people suffering from many of the metabolic complications of pre-diabetes, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and inflammatory autoimmune conditions. Her coaching techniques are unique and come from years of experience working with clients from all walks of life. She is passionate and motivated and enjoys the process of guiding each client to achieving long term health and wellness that fits their individual requirements.

For more information and to make an appointment Justine can be contacted on +972538470289 or healthydiet7@gmail.com. You can also find her on her Facebook page – clinical dietician and mind-body coach

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