Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Emotional Eating and Growing Up

And so begins our next phase of parenthood: school. 

Munchkin had zero issues leaving us in the dust to play with other kids though I can't say the same for me, I spent most of the morning wandering around the house, mentally making lists of all the stuff I could be doing but really just trying to keep the tears at bay. Not that preschool is a bad thing, but if she's old enough for preschool then she will eventually be old enough for elementary school, high school, *gasp* college! It means she can (and will) grow up and leave the nest.

Yes, you can say I was an emotional mess with all these thoughts racing through my head. At times like this my first reaction is to grab the cookies, ice cream, cake; anything that's high in sugar.

When I caught myself scarfing handfuls of dark chocolate chips I knew I was in trouble. 

Emotional eating is something I have fought against all my life. Growing up food was important-we raised beef cattle and pigs, hunted and fished, planted large gardens, and cared for fruit orchards. Being a farm kid most of my non-school hours were spent dealing with food or food production in some form. The nearest grocery store was 30+ miles away so it was a big deal to drive into town once a week and pick up what we couldn't/didn't grow or raise ourselves. Eating at a restaurant was a big deal, even if it was just McDonald's. Birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations were often centered around feasts of specially prepared foods that were rarely offered the rest of the year.

Food, for me, became important, not as a substance that kept me healthy and active, but as a means to instant happiness and comfort.

Sometimes its hard for other people to understand this. My brother, who grew up in the same house and exposed to the same situations, has no issues with food at all. To him a cupcake is just a cupcake, tasty but that's it. For me its a reward, a warm hug of chocolate icing. Nothing can send me into a bad mood faster than having a meal I carefully planned and prepared fall apart-not because all that hard work was wasted, but because of the disappointment in taste and flavor.

Why is this?? Research has shown that throughout life certain foods will develop certain associations and in times of stress we reach for these foods to remind us of those associations. So grabbing a slice of chocolate cake when depressed may trigger happy memories that help fight the depression. Which may explain why my brother-in-law can't stand applesauce: it was the go-to item for when he was sick as a kid and has tons of negative memories attached to it.

Another reason may be what's in the food. Few people want a steak when they are feeling down, more often they reach for pasta and chocolate. Carbs can boost serotonin, helping to make us feel calmer and happier for a short period of time (before we need another carb fix). Sugar is another key comfort food (can we say Ben and Jerry's?), combined (to some extant) with fat. All of these work on our serotonin levels, which make foods high in them more appetizing when we are down.

So, what can we do?

1. Recognize why you are eating what you are eating. Are you really hungry? Are you sad? Stressed? Happy? Sometimes a cookie craving is just that-a desire for a cookie. Sometimes its a need for comfort. Learning which is which has been my hardest food obstacle.

2. Identify your triggers. When I had a corporate job I could juggle several intense projects and be stressed to the max without any issues but have someone casually mention that my house was messy and I'd be in tears and reaching for the ice cream. Knowing what stresses make you reach for food is a great learning tool to changing the habit.

3. Develop new habits. Go for a walk, call up a friend, switch the cookies for fruit, find something else. Emotional eating is a habit and, like any deeply ingrained habit, it is hard to break. Substitute for something else. For example, when I caught myself scarfing the chocolate chips I made myself eat an apple, just in case I was actually hungry.  Sweet, crunchy, but eh, it just didn't have it the way the chocolate did. When I realized I was back in the kitchen reaching for the bag again I made myself take a warm bath. By the time I got out I no longer craved chocolate.

4. Stay strong. Its a habit. Habits can be hard to break, especially the ones developed to cope with sadness and negative emotions. The important thing is to realize what you are doing. I ate nearly a cup's worth of chocolate chips before it dawned on me what was up. To some that would seem like a failure (you ate chocolate!) but to me its a small victory. I didn't eat the entire bag and I realized that I was eating out of emotion rather than need and took steps to stop it.

Little victories like that lead to overcoming obstacles.

What is your favorite way to deal with stress?

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