If you’ve noticed that I’ve been a little quiet, it’s because I’ve taken a little annual leave and enjoyed my first family holiday for many, many years (and first with a toddler).
One of my favourite things about international travel is the opportunity to embrace the culture and try new foods. The previous me would go all in on new and indulgent food only to fall off the deep end into overeating-related anxiety and disordered eating behaviours. It’s a vicious cycle with no happy middle and one I was determined not to carry with me this time around.
Our emotions and mental health can significantly impact our eating habits and relationship with food
You're probably familiar with reaching for a bag of chips or ice cream when feeling stressed, anxious, or bored. Or you can't resist the urge to indulge in your favourite comfort food after a long day at work. You may have even noticed these habits creating further anxiety, regret or harmful behaviours.
If your goal is to change your relationship with food, it's helpful to start by understanding the psychological factors that drive your eating behaviour.
How emotions trigger cravings
A combination of physiological and psychological factors often triggers food cravings. When stressed, our bodies release cortisol, a hormone that can increase our appetite and cravings for highly-palatable high-fat, high-sugar foods.
We may also snack to alleviate our boredom or fill a void. Or we may overeat or under-eat to cope with difficult emotions such as anxiety.
And since the foods we typically crave are highly-palatable, they're also highly addictive. High-sugar and high-fat foods may release feel-good chemicals in our brains, such as dopamine, which can create a pleasurable association with eating those foods. This can then lead to a cycle where we use foods to deal with our emotions.High stress or anxiety levels can also leave us feeling out of control. Unsurprisingly, most eating disorder patients find tackling issues with control essential to their recovery.
Now that you know how your emotions and cravings are connected, let’s look into how to improve your relationship with food.
The foundation for a better relationship with food
Like most other things in health, improving your mental health, stress management and prioritising rest, sleep, and recovery are the foundational building blocks for improving your relationship with food.Sometimes making these positive changes is as simple as going to bed earlier and setting strict parameters between work and home.
Sometimes, it requires deep introspection into your life, making some uncomfortable changes related to work or personal life or reaching out to a mental health professional who can help you understand yourself better.
In most cases, it's only after these fundamental pieces are in place that the more tactical eating habits have the space to stick. And sometimes, working on fundamentals is all you need.
In any case, let's explore those more tactical habits next.
Identify food triggers
If your goal is to eliminate an overeating habit, reducing your food cravings starts by identifying the triggers that connect them. Keeping a food journal can help you track what you eat and when you experience cravings.
The food journal can help you identify thought patterns and develop strategies for managing your cravings, such as distracting yourself with a non-food-related activity or practising mindfulness.
It can also help to be aware of environmental cues—like walking past a particular store, meeting with a friend or seeing certain ads on TV—that may trigger food cravings. Once you become aware of these triggers, you can plan and make more mindful decisions regarding eating.
Practice mindful eating
Close to 35 years ago, my wonderful aunt told me to eat slowly to enjoy my food more. Since then, I’ve followed her advice daily, and I’ve even been known to drive colleagues a little mad while they wait for me to finish my lunch.
Mindful eating is about being present and fully engaged with your eating experience.By slowing down and being present with your food, you can improve your digestion, increase your enjoyment of your meals, and reduce overeating.
Try to cultivate a sense of mindfulness and gratitude around your eating habits.
Take time to appreciate the flavours and textures of your food, and recognise the effort and care that went into producing it. By cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation around your food, you can develop a deeper connection to the food you eat and foster a more positive relationship with your body.
Be kind and understanding when you experience difficult emotions, and recognise that emotional behaviours linked to eating are common. Rather than beating yourself up, stay curious about what you’re experiencing, as this curiosity often leads to insights about your thoughts and behaviour.
Finding empathy and compassion during emotional eating can be a powerful way to move through difficult moments without attaching further pain or guilt, which can sometimes exacerbate existing feelings.
You could even talk to yourself as if you were talking to a friend, with understanding and kindness. At its core, our relationship with food reflects our relationship with ourselves.
Our relationship with food is complex and multifaceted
Various factors influence our eating habits, including our emotions, mental health, and cultural background. By taking the time to understand and address the mental side of your relationship with food, you can develop a healthier and more positive relationship with yourself and what you eat.
Developing a healthy and positive relationship with food is a journey.
By focusing on progress rather than perfection, you can develop a sustainable and fulfilling relationship with food that nourishes your body and mind.
If you're struggling with emotional eating or need additional support to better understand your relationship with food, don't hesitate to contact me for help.
Have a winning day!