Sometimes it’s not what you’re eating, it’s why you’re eating it.
Having just recently passed the holiday season and entered into the time when people struggle with keeping those New Year’s weight loss resolutions, I often find myself asked these days what my secret is.
At the age of thirty-six, I have maintained a healthy weight for my entire adult life. I’m not a medical expert and don’t pretend to be one. I don’t obsessively count calories. I don’t have a gym membership. I have no idea how long it has been since I stepped onto a scale. I like to eat. I love chocolate and I love coffee and I don’t intend on giving either of those things up.
So what is it? Good genetics? Perhaps. I think, though, it’s more a matter of taking the information about diet and exercise that is regularly offered and easily available to all of us and discovering a way to make this information applicable in my daily life, without torturing myself in the process.
As a reporter, I am trained to observe. One of the most common pitfalls to weight maintenance that I’ve observed with so many people is that of emotional eating. In order to avoid emotional eating, one needs to first understand what it is and where it comes from.
Anyone with a child can attest to the fact that not even infants eat only because they’re hungry. Though food is a necessity for survival, it’s also a source of comfort and bonding. What’s more, have you ever noticed that both formula and breast milk are sweet? The act of feeding and being fed is—from the very start of our lives—a soothing thing that involves something sweet and interaction with others.
Through our lives, that natural desire for comfort through food is added to by other messages and other needs. As children, we’re rewarded with sweets when we’ve done well and we learn to reward ourselves in the same way. As adolescents, the notion of being social and making friends is done in fast food places or the food court at the mall. In public schools, one of the main times children have during the day to just sit and visit with each other is during lunch, and this often carries over to the work environment as well. Important events are marked with meals and holiday festivities become a manic combo of stress, socialization, and overindulgence. We are social creatures in need of bonding, comfort and reward.
While you aren’t going to take the emotional concepts of food out of every occasion (and why would you want to?), you can train yourself toward healthier habits, avoid some of the day-to-day usage of food for comfort, and, therefore, stand a better chance of weight maintenance.
Sometimes, the decision to eat or not to eat actually comes down to the not-so-simple question: Am I hungry? If the answer to that question is an undeniable yes, then—by all means—eat.
But sometimes the answer to the question might be a little less convincing. I’m angry. I’m tired. I’m stressed. And perhaps the most common one, I’m bored.
But I might be hungry, too.
When I suspect that I’m reaching for food because I’m angry, stressed, or bored, what I try to do instead is spend about twenty minutes on a creative project to release some of the pent up energy that negative emotions cause. I’m a writer, so often this creative release comes from writing a poem or journaling. It doesn’t really matter what is written or how well it’s written. I give it twenty minutes, and often when the twenty minutes have passed, I find that I’m not only less angry/ stressed/ bored, but I wasn’t really hungry either.
If I’m not interested in using the creative outlet this time around, twenty minutes of exercise is also a good thing to slip into the place of emotional eating. I’m not talking repetitions or some hardcore punishing sort of exercise either (note: exercise shouldn’t be a punishment). How about being a kid for a while, though?
Since I have kids, I have yard equipment for kids, including an outdoor basketball net and basketball as well as a trampoline. I find few things better for getting out the negative energy than shooting hoops or jumping on the trampoline. Not only am I reminded of some of the most pleasant experiences of being a child, but I’m also out in the sun and moving about—both of which are medically proven to be great mood boosters.
If you’re at the office or a place where children’s yard equipment isn’t available, walking is an exercise that can be done just about anywhere. Soccer or other types of balls that you can kick or bounce are readily available at your nearest store. All you need is a bit of space indoors or out in which to use them. If you’re dealing with nighttime emotional food cravings, simple stretches, or yoga exercises—which are described and even demonstrated through video at a number of internet venues—are an option. Pacing around the house is an option as well, and one I use myself in the cold winter evenings as a way to free my mind through the movement of my body.
The main point isn’t how you move about, it’s that you’re moving.
After about twenty minutes of creativity or exercise, ask yourself the question again: Am I hungry? If you’re hungry, then eat. If you’re not hungry, then find something else to do.
Tired emotional eating is a little bit trickier of an issue to deal with. Research shows that adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night, though most of us only get about six. Further studies indicate that lack of sleep actually messes with the body’s ability to control hunger. Additionally, tiredness makes it harder to successfully deal with anger and stress.
It seems odd that one of the priorities to weight maintenance should be sleep maintenance, but there is a definite correlation between the two. The attempt to get more sleep at night isn’t just about feeling refreshed when you wake up. It’s also about helping your body with its own weight maintenance mechanisms and avoiding the pitfall of emotional eating.
As stated, there is no way to take the emotional concept out of food. I haven’t yet removed emotional eating entirely from my own life and I don’t believe that I should. There will always be that time when the absolute best thing you can do is sit and share a meal with a good friend, whether you’re hungry or not. But understanding emotional eating and understanding that there are options to lessen the times you use food to meet emotional needs is a sure way to give yourself a good start in maintaining a healthy weight.