Do You Use Food As a Crutch?

DonutsI really enjoy eating. I think many of us do, especially after we’ve been on our Primal journeys for a while and have expanded our cooking talents into new creative territory. My opinion is food can and should make us feel good. It’s part of our evolutionary fabric. We eat for survival but also for enjoyment just as our ancestors did. Our very physiology is set up for it, in fact. We’re treated to a feel-good hit in our brain’s pleasure centers when we eat. That said, we sometimes get emotional satisfaction from the deal as well. For example, while not every meal needs to be a monumental creative accomplishment, those that are offer a unique satisfaction that goes somewhat beyond the physical. Other times, it’s not so much a culinary feat but a familial/cultural tradition that magnifies or deepens the satiation. (This time of year, of course, is prime time for sentimentalizing food – for better and worse.) Still other times, however, the emotional component is less a side bonus than the initial impetus. We’re drawn to eat because of our emotions. (And here’s where we begin to get ourselves in trouble….)

On a day to day basis, many of us might not automatically identify our patterns with emotional eating, per se. We might use food in a crutch-like, but not overtly emotional way like downing a couple cups of coffee each day for a continuing energy boost or unwinding from the day with a regular glass of something alcoholic (for me it’s having a single glass of wine most nights). In these and many other cases, they’re foods we “use” without problematic consequences. Likewise, now and then we just crave something non-Primal and allow ourselves the option. There’s no Primal police force ready to sound the alarm if you eat off the PB grid. I’m not on a mission to “normalize” orthorexia. Not every dietary indiscretion or indulgence suggests some deeper psychological issue. Sometimes a cookie really is just a cookie.

On the other hand, many of us have turned to food at some point to stifle or distract our emotions. We might eat at night out of abject boredom – or deep loneliness. Maybe it’s stress or anxiety, and food feels like an emotional salve in the moment. We’re sick, and we want comfort food. We’re in physical or emotional pain, and we just want something to take our minds off the discomfort for a while. Difficult times or transitions leave us feeling empty, and food becomes the filler or coping mechanism for a few days or maybe a few weeks (or several years). In these ways, emotional eating stands on its own in a stark way and substitutes for something bigger than what could be contained on the plate.

The fact is, food has tremendous power to heal, to enhance our enjoyment of life, to change us mentally and physically. We know this all too well in the MDA community. But when we begin to use food for these emotional triggers, we can over time begin wading into self-destructive or at least self-defeating behavior. When it becomes a regular pattern not only does our health suffer, but we suffer emotionally by putting off addressing what’s behind the impulse. As a general principle, we too often seek out the food related hit to our pleasure centers when we’re short on other pleasures in our lives. That leads us to the question of what to do when the emotional impetus creeps in….

Accept the biology of the situation.

Yes, food trips our feel-good trigger. We’re even hormonally wired to seek out typical comfort foods based on the interaction of stress with ghrelin levels. And our minds aren’t deceiving us about the stress relief. Research shows it can, in fact, inhibit our brain’s anxiety response. That said, there are any number of ways to achieve the same thing. No, it’s not in your head, but there’s a better way to work the system.

Hit the pause button.

Just stop. Stop yourself from walking to the fridge. Stop your thoughts. Go clip your fingernails. Brush the dog. Vacuum or shovel. Throw in a load of laundry. Feel a little gripped? Okay, you’re ready for the next point.

Assess what’s really going on.

Check in with yourself – recent past, immediate present, near future. Put it in the starkest, most blunt terms you can. Use profanity if desired. Have you had a really (blank) day? How has this week been for you? Are you worried about that (blank) project coming up at work or how the (blank) you’re going to pay for an upcoming trip or home repair? Even better – have a checklist. Journaling serves its purpose, but there’s something about the simplicity of a checklist (kept on the fridge perhaps) that stares back at you with immediate clarity. Write the day and check off what triggered the (blank) cravings.

Get your needs met.

Especially if this is a frequent occurrence, what is food standing in for? What’s going on emotionally that needs tending? For some, it might be as simple as taking some time off work, spending personal time in a more quality-oriented way (as in fun), or tweaking your schedule, commitments, or budget. For others, however, the impetus toward emotional eating isn’t just situational. It’s a deeply rooted association that has perhaps built up over years or even decades. Finding an experienced therapist and/or relevant support group can be key. Don’t force yourself to keep stuffing down the impulse. Unpack it. Bring it into the light of day to live unburdened by it.

Have a different kind of menu for these moments.

Again, post it on the fridge. Put a copy in your desk, your car, your purse, your briefcase, and wherever else you need it. When you’re “hungry,” (as in not), look at the list of other things you can do to make yourself feel good in the moment. Have at least ten things you can do. Add to it whenever you’re so inspired.

Finally, let me say one last thing about an emotion I don’t believe should have any place in eating. That’s guilt. I’d venture to guess that more misery has been been experienced and more pounds added from guilt than most feelings. It’s a cruel but telling irony. We eat what we know we shouldn’t and perhaps even really don’t really want to. Then we wallow in guilt, which leads to shame, which circles back to isolation and insecurity, and right back to the impulse to fill the emotional hole again. While we can’t change the past (whether it was five years or five minutes ago), we can work to cut off the cycle we find ourselves in. Cut it off at guilt.

This isn’t to justify the undesirable choice. You’re not justifying it or condemning it. Don’t tell yourself anything about it in fact. Conversing with our impulses rarely if ever helps. Circumvent the mental chatter altogether. (It does nothing but takes you down a rabbit hole.) Come back solely to the sensory and physical. Do something (other than eating) to get back in your body. Yup, the very one you’re probably looking at with more frustration or disappointment or disgust or self-loathing than you had before you ate the thing-you-emotionally-ate. Go against every instinct you may have and do something good for it – something healthy or indulgent or aesthetically pleasing. Put on something you look good in. Trim your beard. Go for a walk. Take a hot bath. Go float in the ocean or lay in the grass. Paint your nails if that’s your thing. The point is, realign your thinking in that specific moment. The cookie is gone unless you’re still carrying it around in your head. Let it go. The rest of the day is waiting.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Do emotions influence your eating? What’s been the best solution for you? Share your thoughts and strategies.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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