Thoughtful Eating vs. Emotional Eating

So I had a rough day a few weeks ago.  Nothing major happened, just a long day at the office with lots of surprises.  Luckily, I had a big date planned with my wife later in the evening that served as reminder that relief was coming if I could just make it to 5:00.  I was sure I left all my stress at the office as I sped home to pick up my little hotty and back to town to one of our favorite restaurants.   As we sat down at the table, I made an executive decision to immediately order some cheese fries as an appetizer.  I glanced up at my wife just in time to see her raise her eyebrows with surprise.  We don’t typically eat fried food so I understood why she might be shocked by my choice, but hey, we were on a date.  Why not splurge a little.  You only live once right?   I popped one of those fries in my mouth and Immediately smiled.  It might have been a bad day, but fried food can just make it all better sometimes.  I guess that’s why I decided to order my fish fried in that special Thai sauce.  I ate it all.  Quickly.  And I was feeling better.  By the time the waitress asked about dessert, I had lost every ounce of restraint and ordered key lime pie, which was amazing by the way.  It wasn’t until around 9:30 that my buzz began to wear off and I started to question my judgment at the restaurant.  For a guy who typically tries hard to live a healthy lifestyle, I had fallen off the wagon pretty hard.   Why?  While I could chalk this up as a simple splurge night gone bad, I think we all know there was something deeper going on.  I didn’t think through my choices.  I wasn’t intentional about my order.  I was thoughtlessly eating anything that might mediate all the adrenaline and cortisol that was pulsing through my body as a result of a very stressful day.  The science clearly supports this hypothesis:  high fat, high sugar foods release endorphins into your blood stream that literally make you feel happier…for about 15 minutes.  

I’m guessing that most people have had similar experiences in life.  That moment when you recognize that you are not eating because you are hungry, or because you need energy, but you are eating simply to feel better.  We call it emotional eating and it is a large part of why many people struggle to maintain a healthy body weight.  Emotional eating is impulsive, it doesn’t think through the consequences, and it is essentially a thoughtless automatic behavior.  This is in contrast to what I call thoughtful eating, which is essentially eating with the attention necessary to actually enjoy your food and its effects on your body.  Thoughtful eating is based on the ancient principle of mindfulness, which refers to the practice of being aware of what is happening on a minute-by-minute basis and focusing on living in the moment.  All too often, we focus on what happened an hour ago at the office or the fight we had with our spouse last night and we forget to be intentional about what’s happening right here, right now.  Mindfulness encourages us to notice our stress and then simply bring ourselves back to the now.  In the case of thoughtful eating, mindfulness can help us fully enjoy a meal and the experience of eating, with a focus on why we are eating, remembering our goals to live a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy body weight.  When we practice intentional thoughtful eating, we avoid thoughtless emotional eating.

If you want to practice thoughtful eating, try these 3 strategies:

  1.  Slow down the process.

If you look at my case-study of emotional eating, notice the first thing I did when I sat down for dinner.  I didn’t order water.  I didn’t look at a menu.  I didn’t gaze into my beautiful wife’s eyes.  I impulsively ordered something fried and nasty.  Before you begin eating, slow down the process.  Take a moment to reflect upon how you feel.  Are you rushed?  Stressed?  Sad?  Bored?  Hungry?  What are your wants, and what are your needs?  Differentiate between the two.  After you have taken this moment to slow down the process, then you can choose if you want to eat, what you want to eat, and how you want to eat.

  1.  Sit down and turn off your phone (and your iPad, and your laptop, and your TV, and anything else with a screen).

I am usually running so fast and furious that it is entirely possible that I eat more meals in my car than I do at my kitchen table.  That’s no good.  To practice thoughtful eating we shouldn’t eat on the go.  We should sit down and relax for a minute.  We are less likely to appreciate our food, and certainly less likely to keep track of how much we are eating, when we are multitasking.  So put down your phone, stop eating in front of the TV, and actually take the time to savor the food you are putting in your mouth.  Truly enjoy the flavors and textures in your mouth before you swallow. Some research shows this prevents overeating by giving your gut time to send messages to the brain to say you’re full.

  1. Give thanks and gratitude.

There is something to be said for the tradition of saying Grace before the meal.  Thanking God for the provision of food you are about to eat will only help you be more mindful of what you are actually eating.  If you aren’t religious, pause and take a moment to acknowledge what was actually required for you to enjoy your meal — be it thanks to the farmers, the factory workers, the animals, the chefs, or even your companions at the table.

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