Often people that are struggling with emotional eating or with their weight will have been stuck in a cycle of dieting, losing weight, putting weight on, guilt, for a long time before they come and seek help from a counsellor. Why do we get stuck in these unhealthy cycles and what can we do about it?
The diet industry is huge, selling an idea that you can be successful, happy and fulfilled if you lose weight and look a particular way. Companies that sell diets will discuss certain food types as being ‘good’ and other food types as being ‘bad’. Interestingly these categories will often include different food and even food that at one time may be seen as ‘good’ will move into the ‘bad’ category when a company rebrands or introduces a new diet.
The problem with this is that it gives a message that connects with our sense of whether we ourselves are good or bad. From a young age we internalise ideas about ourselves and others based on our experiences and how we interpret these. This can lead to psychological distress if we don’t work through and process our thoughts and experiences positively.
If we are struggling with psychological distress or managing our emotions this can lead us to find ways to comfort and soothe ourselves. It is no wonder we use food as a way to comfort ourselves as when we were a baby one of our earliest sources of pain and discomfort was when we felt hungry, leading us to cry and for most of us we would then be comforted with food. It can feel wonderful to satisfy ourselves with food, and is healthy if we are hungry or on occasion to help ourselves to feel better. However, if we use food regularly to manage our emotions, eating when we are not hungry and have no need for food, it can become a problem.
It is important not to buy into the idea of dieting and labelling food as either good or bad. This can only lead to an increase in feelings of guilt and shame when we inevitably slip up and eat something on the ‘bad’ list or don’t eat enough from the ‘good’ list. What can be helpful is to:
Practice Mindfulness, including Mindful eating. This can help you to identify when you are hungry, identify what emotions are behind your unhealthy cravings, and stay in control of yourself and your choices.
Avoid Labels. Thinking about food in terms of good or bad is unhelpful and can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. This in turn can trigger cravings and overeating. Learning to challenge these beliefs and see food as benign or neutral can break the cycle of depriving yourself, craving food, eating ‘bad’ food and then feeling shameful and guilty. Food is neither good nor bad and you are not good or bad because of what you eat.
Find Other Sources of Pleasure. There are many different ways we can soothe and comfort ourselves and we need to find alternatives if we are over eating. Find other sources of enjoyment and comfort, nurture yourself and your interests, engage in meaningful and fulfilling relationships.
Allow Yourself Treats without judgment. Denying yourself food that you enjoy will make you crave it more. Buy treats in smaller portions so you won’t have as much in the house and cannot binge on it but still allow yourself those pleasures.
Stop Dieting. Denying yourself and restricting what you can eat can trigger overeating. Rather than only eating ‘good’ food and restricting ‘bad’ aim for a balanced diet as much as possible.
Seek Support to understand the reasons for your emotional eating. Rather than joining a diet group or program that will tell you what is good or bad and reinforce those feelings of guilt and shame, seek help from a counsellor or psychologist to help you understand the psychological reasons that causes your behaviour, such as unresolved loss, anxiety or negative body image.