How to use this simple technique to manage emotional overeating and non-hunger eating
I should probably start with a disclaimer that emotional eating isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very normal and human thing. We celebrate birthdays and special occasions with food and we commiserate with it too.
At times when we feel tired or low, a chocolate bar might be just the pick-me-up we need.
I think it’s important to normalise this and avoid getting into the complete demonisation of sugar. Yes, I know that technically it has no nutritional value. But let’s face it, it tastes good and is virtually impossible to omit from our life. Trying to do so is likely to create stress, possible feelings of deprivation and increase the risk of developing disordered eating behaviours.
So, when does it become an issue?
If you notice that you are eating refined foods like sweets or chocolate in a mindless way. If you feel like you have no sense of control around them or like you depend on them in order to cope with life’s events. Then it might be worth considering applying the HALT technique.
What does HALT stand for?
The acronym HALT stands for “Am I…. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired”. It is a simple technique designed to create a brief pause and period of consideration between thinking about food and actually eating it.
The next time you find yourself on autopilot, about to open the ‘treats’ cupboard. Consider the following:
Are you actually hungry? I know this seems like a really obvious statement. But how do you know when you’re actually hungry and not just emotional overeating?
- Has 3 or 4 hours passed since you last ate
- Are you starting to think about food
- Are you feeling low on energy
- Are you feeling irritable
- Is your stomach growling
These are some of the signs that might indicate you are hungry and should choose a balanced meal, as opposed to a snack or treat.
Some people are so busy in their daily lives or so engrossed in activities around them that they aren’t attuned to their hunger signals. They may then find themselves experiencing a sudden urge to eat after going for an extended period of time. Meaning they reach for non-ideal foods which they subsequently overeat.
Equally, if you are eating regularly but are still finding yourself craving sweet foods, perhaps the composition of your meals needs more attention. A balanced meal comprising protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats should provide a stable release of energy from one meal to the next. Maintaining stable blood sugars throughout the day is essential for avoiding the energy peaks and crashes associated with eating a lot of refined carbohydrates.
Are you angry or upset about something? This can be a trigger for emotional overeating. What is it and what is the story that you are telling yourself about it? If we feel hurt by someone else’s words or actions and we aren’t able to express them, we can internalise and stuff those feelings down with food. Are there other ways that you can express these feelings? Perhaps you could write a letter to the person but not send it, in order to help you release the feelings. We know that we hold emotions in our body and physical movement is fantastic at helping us to shift stuck energy. So perhaps what is needed is a walk or to punch your frustration out on a pillow.
Or perhaps, the emotions you’re feeling are coming from your own internal critic and you berating yourself for not having met your own unrealistic expectations. Then what you might need to do is challenge your unhelpful thinking and find a more self-compassionate response.
Are you feeling lonely? What you might be seeking is connection. Do you have an appropriate network of support around you? Are the people in your life energy givers or energy vampires? Sometimes we can be surrounded by family and friends and still feel lonely. Consider what you want more of in your life and where could you find this. I describe it to my clients as ‘finding their tribe’. Consider the type of people that you want around you and think about where they might be. For example, if you want to quit drinking, it may not serve you to keep hanging out with your old friends in bars. If you want to create a new or healthy lifestyle, where would people who already live that lifestyle be?
If in-person connections aren’t possible, are there communities online already created for hobbies or interests you share? Virtual connections are still connections and can be fulfilling.
Are you tired? Tiredness can be a common trigger for reaching for food. Studies have indicated that those who are chronically sleep deprived will eat approximately 500 extra calories a day than those that sleep 7-8 hours. This is due to the impact poor sleep has on both our hunger hormones and energy levels.
Appropriate rest plays a vital role in the regulation of our appetite and satiety levels. Modern-day living, technology and higher stress demands mean that we are sleeping less and having a poorer quality of sleep. If this applies to you, try:
- Setting a consistent bedtime which allows for a ‘wind-down period
- Switch off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to bed
- Keep a notebook by the bed and write down any to-do’s or potential worries to get them out of your bed
- Avoid eating at least two hours before bedtime
- Read or listen to a meditation audio
- Take an Epsom salt bath, the magnesium is a wonderful sleep aid
- Avoid lying in or napping during the day, even if you’re. Our bodies love routine and consistency.
I know that it can feel incredibly difficult at the moment you are triggered to choose an alternative action. It may almost feel like a compulsion to continue and eat the food even though there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to. This is because our brains are hardwired for pleasure and to also take the easiest route to a solution. Although there are negative consequences to emotional overeating in the long term, at that moment your brain wants the instant solution.
So, try not to be too hard on yourself if you try this technique to curb your emotional overeating and it doesn’t always work out. Like anything, we get better with practice and the more you are able to make a choice to meet your emotional needs in other ways, you are strengthening your emotional resilience muscle.
If you feel like you need help with an eating disorder in the UK or Ireland, get in touch to discuss ways that I can support you.