A Salad With Your Sorrow?

A pint of Ben & Jerry’s. That whole freaking bag of potato chips. A box of donut holes. No, it’s not the MDA trifecta of evil (although it could be). Sure, they’re among the proverbial symbols of “mood food,” and the saying about Ben and Jerry’s is true: ice cream tops the list, according to Brian Wansink, professor and author on the subject of emotional eating. (Wansink found that beyond top honors, gender determines what we drown our sorrow in. Women turn to chocolate – surprise – and cookies, while men hunt down heartier fare like pizza, steak and casserole.)

But even if these kinds of products have never seen the inside of your kitchen let alone your stomach, that doesn’t mean you’re immune from turning to food for more than nutrition. Yes, even innocent carrots and grape tomatoes can be used for deleterious purposes. No food is safe from the scourge of mindless, emotionally driven eating.

Ultimately, emotional eating is about the response to internal pulls (other than basic hunger). Stress, sadness, loneliness, frustration, boredom, indecision or even the avoidance/craving for intimacy can all be causes. And it turns out the siren song of emotional eating can be more insidious than our response to the external temptations of holiday treats or social spreads. A study published in the medical journal Obesity found that those who ate in response to internal motivations like emotions were more likely to have problems losing weight and keeping it off than people whose triggers were more external like social eating. If you think you see a glimmer of your reflection in this frame, here are a few tips to get you in the right relationship with food:

Choose a diet and exercise routine that minimizes blood sugar spikes and dips.
We couldn’t possibly be talking about that Primal Blueprint lifestyle again! You betcha.

Create Structure
If it helps, eat the same general things each day: eggs with veggies for breakfast, salad for lunch, etc. The structure will keep you on track, or it will at least allow you to better sniff out those emotionally-driven deviations.

Try a Food Diary
Countless experts recommend grabbing a pen and paper instead of a snack when a nagging emotional craving hits. If you aren’t truly hungry, you’re likely hankering for something other than food. Record when during the day, and what you think the underlying feeling might be that’s pulling you toward the refrigerator. You’ll be able to indentify patterns and triggers that will help you regain control.

Address Underlying Issues
Sometimes we’re just looking for a distraction to avoid loading the dishwasher or grading that stack of papers in the briefcase. However, many people prone to emotional eating are dealing with larger issues that can include depression, anxiety, overwhelming stress, relationship troubles, or feelings of self-contempt. Seek out a therapist and give yourself the kind of help that will truly feed and empower the spirit.

Maintain Life Balance
The lower the drama, the less incentive there is to work it out with an afternoon snack. Nonetheless, life hands us our share of stress and even upheaval. In the face (or absence) of these, try as much as you can to keep the routine going (i.e. structured eating, workouts, sleep, etc.). At the lowest or most difficult points of our lives, routine can truly help carry us through. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Enjoy Finding Other Comforts
Instead of turning to food during times of stress or distraction, get yourself outside for some sun, take a walk, head for the weight room or even just the steam room at the gym. Tend the garden, or buy some fresh flowers. Take some time in the work shop or get a pedicure. Drive the dog and/or kids to the park for some frisbee, or pick up the phone and call a friend. Life is full of gratifying options that won’t leave you feeling guilty afterward.

We’ve all been here at some point. Got tips, questions, or words of wisdom you’d like to share? Jump right in.

Irini Souiki Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Sensible Vices

How to Cheat

FitSugar: National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

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9 thoughts on “A Salad With Your Sorrow?”

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  1. I’ve always found the busier I am, the less problem I have with the emotional eating. I guess that means boredom is my strongest emotional trigger, and though eating can be fun, I know I shouldn’t eat simply as something fun to do. Funny enough, I don’t do the frustrated eating, or the nervous eating, or the angry or sad eating, it’s pretty much just the eating out of boredom that gets me.

  2. For someone who has battled the “comfort food” syndrome, I know how hard it can be to just tack on unnecessary pounds. It seems for me it is just a slippery slope downhill and there is no end unless I get outside and exercise.

  3. Definately the same thing as Gerard here, boredom food. Especially when I’m working at the tills.. one thing really works for that though! it’s those pieces of wood, my translator says they should be called liquorice in english, though I thought that was more a candy sort..
    Anyway, chewing on one of those sticks works wonders!

  4. create structure is a FAB way of phrasing it.

    I guess Im blessed in the viewing food as fuel sense—-I really dont grow tired of foods.

    clients Ive worked with? they get “sick of that” and “crave variety” and then it’s a downward spiral at times.

  5. Naomi,

    “zoethout” or for the other readers “sweet-wood” Does that even exist here in the US?
    Maybe we should start a little business 😉


    1. In the UK it’s known as ‘licorice root’ to distinguish it from ‘licorice’ which is the common name for the black jelly-like sweets (candy). You can get the root (which looks like a stick slightly thinner than a pencil) in health food stores over here, so you might find it in US stores too.

      I’m a sucker for herbal/spiced tea with licorice root in, it’s very sweet but without natural sugars.

      WARNING – it can cause elevated blood pressure if consumed in excess – if you suffer from high blood pressure you might want to avoid this sweet little root. (this is presumably why it isn’t commonly used as a sugar free sweetener)

  6. You said:
    “Enjoy Finding Other Comforts … Life is full of gratifying options that won’t leave you feeling guilty afterward.”

    Great advice! I typically spend hours every day sitting at my computer looking up news and information, and I too often snack constantly while at the computer. I’ve tried to break that habit, and guess what? It works. Surfing and blogging keep my mind occupied, and they are just as satisfying without the snacking. The snacking was just an unnecessary habit that I can easily do without as long as I keep busy.