If you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes or have been told that you’re at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, you already know you’ve got to change your eating habits. But overhauling your diet is anything but easy—especially when you’re feeling hurt, sad, mad, lonely, or aggravated. If you turn to food when you’re stressed or unhappy, you could be damaging your health with emotional eating.
“Plenty of people who try to adopt healthier eating habits often find themselves waylaid by emotional eating,” says Jill Weisenberger, who partnered with the American Diabetes Association to write “Prediabetes: A Complete Guide: Your Lifestyle Reset to Stop Prediabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses” (American Diabetes Association, May 2018, $16.95). “Digging into a carton of ice cream or bag of chips when you’re feeling down can quickly derail your health goals.”
Weisenberger says it can be hard to break the habit of emotional eating, because psychology and biology are both at play. People reach for “feel-good” foods like Mom’s cookies or a cheesy casserole. Additionally, stress hormones crank up the appetite, and eating releases the brain’s feel-good chemicals. Often, a psychotherapist skilled in working with people with disordered eating is the ideal person to help you. Ask your healthcare provider for a referral if you think a psychotherapist can help you.
Despite these challenges, you can learn to stop emotional eating with practice and diligence. Are you ready to break free of emotional eating and move one step closer to reclaiming your health? Here are a few techniques that may help you on your journey.
Keep a log: Record your food intake for a week or two. Track what you’re eating along with your mood. This process may help you find choice points in which you can learn to change your thinking and behaviour and teach you to identify your breaking points long before you break.
“Consider keeping a photo log,” suggests Weisenberger. “If you’re about to eat, snap a picture. Do this for a week to see in colour the choices you’ve been making.”
Notice and label your emotions: Having negative emotions isn’t usually bad. In fact, having negative emotions is actually normal. But taking a deep dive into a bag of salty, crunchy snacks because of negative emotions is unhelpful in the long run.
“Practice noticing and labeling your emotions,” says Weisenberger. “Are you sad, anxious, lonely, or mad? Naming them and observing them without judgment will help you learn about them. Many people find that journaling about their emotions is helpful.”
Imagine handling emotional situations. In your mind, practice responding to common triggers in ways that don’t lead you to overeating. Think about what you can do next time you feel overwhelmed with household chores or the next time you argue with your spouse or whatever situation leads you to eat emotionally. Over and over in your mind, practice acting in desirable ways. “Here again,” says Weisenberger, “many people find journaling enlightening and empowering.”Create a plan: After imagining responding in positive ways, create a plan for difficult situations. If you need distractions, gather things to help you, such as puzzle books, adult colouring books, nail polish, a list of people to call, or a list of activities such as soaking in a bath or playing with your dog.
“If you know that exercise or meditation help you cope with strong emotions, plan to take at least five minutes for meditation or exercise,” says Weisenberger. “You may need more than one plan to address various situations.”
Practice non-food coping skills. Regularly soothe yourself without calories. Every day, take time for soothing enjoyment, so when the time comes, you have an arsenal of coping strategies at the ready. Some ideas include taking deep-breathing breaks, using adult colouring books, writing in a journal, listening to soothing or uplifting music, chatting with a friend, buying yourself flowers, or soaking in a hot tub.
“I regularly play with my dog, Benny, a perpetual puppy,” says Weisenberger. “I also call and text my daughters, spend quiet time drinking tea or coffee with my husband, take five-minute breaks outside, and sit alone sipping a warm and fragrant tea from a beautiful cup. How you choose to soothe yourself is as individual as you are.”
Adopt a morning ritual: A morning ritual potentially has the power to affect your entire day. A ritual is different from a routine in that a ritual holds a deeper meaning. A few examples are:
• Express gratitude in thoughts, a journal, or aloud.
• Reaffirm your goals in writing or aloud.
• Practice yoga, meditation, or prayer.
• Watch a sunrise.
• Visualize good things happening in your day.
• Recite affirmations or a mantra.
Build in food treats: Whatever food you reach for in times of stress probably has some special meaning to you. Is it chocolate, macaroni and cheese, pizza, or hot-from-the-oven cookies? Whatever it is, be sure to have some now and then. Not as a reward, but simply because you like the way it tastes. Practice enjoying this favourite food in a reasonable amount, perhaps as part of a balanced meal. Simply removing a food’s taboo label can be helpful. In this way, you are learning that it’s okay to treat yourself and removing the notion of treats as cheats. We all deserve treats, but cheat days are the wrong mindset.
Create a personal wellness vision and review it often: A personal wellness vision is a concrete and motivating picture of you being healthy, feeling healthy, and living a healthful life. Imagine yourself at your ideal level of well-being. How do you feel? Look? Act? Write down what this looks like for you. This vision will help you identify what is important to you.
“After creating your vision, be sure to regularly look it over! It’s easy to forget what really matters when you’re under stress or running in crisis mode. But knowing—and remembering—what’s really important steers you to appropriate actions.”
“Reaching for food to manage your emotions can be a very hard habit to break,” concludes Weisenberger. “Become aware of times when you look to food to soothe you, calm you down, or help you avoid your feelings. When you recognize that you’ve been eating with your emotions, you can change the behaviour and continue striving toward your health goals,” says Weisenberger.