By Michelle May, M.D.
If you eat for emotional reasons—when you’re sad, mad, glad, stressed, or lonely—you probably eat in order to feel better. And eating works!
Unfortunately, you usually feel worse afterward—emotionally and physically. That may cause you to beat yourself up—quite literally adding insult to injury. The guilt and shame become yet another trigger for emotional eating, feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle.
What if the first step to breaking this cycle is self-compassion instead of self-criticism? How might that help? And more important, where do you start?
How does self-compassion help with emotional eating?
As difficult as it may be to fathom, being understanding and forgiving of yourself for overeating will help you take the next step to finding other ways to meet your emotional needs.
After all, you don’t eat for emotional reasons because you are “weak-willed,” “stupid,” or “out of control.” You do it because it works!
Blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault for attempting to care for yourself only backfires. Imagine you were teaching a young child something new… would blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault help or hurt? The way you speak to yourself has just as much power! (You may be afraid that if you are “nice” to yourself, you won’t change, but the opposite is true! You care for yourself because you accept yourself, not so you’ll accept yourself. Read Fear of Self-Acceptance.)
So how can you begin to respond with self-compassion when you overeat?
Three Ways to Nurture Self-Compassion
Gently acknowledge that you were doing the best you could in that moment.
Validate your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being normal and understandable given the circumstances. As Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, says, “Of course!” It’s like saying, “I totally get why you thought, felt, or did that!”
Of course you ate! Who wouldn’t want to feel better when you’re sad, mad, stressed, or lonely—or magnify the pleasure when you’re glad? This validation and unconditional acceptance creates a safe environment for experimenting with new thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When you overeat, validate the choice as being rational at the time: “Of course you __________________!” This gentle, understanding self-talk will open the door to exploring how you might do it differently next time if you don’t like how it turned out.
Bring nonjudgmental awareness to the situation.
Mindful eating is all about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your choices and experiences with eating. Nonjudgment is essential because it provides a more objective understanding of what happened and why.
Dr. Camerin Ross, one of the two therapists at our upcoming Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Retreat, suggests writing about an overeating or binge eating episode and identifying the “voices” that show up. Nonjudgmentally recognizing how your Restrictive Eating, Overeating, and Binge Eating voices drive the cycle affords you the opportunity to cultivate your Self-Care Voice. (Read through this sample script to see how this works.)
Cultivate Your Self-Care Voice
Your Self-Care Voice wants the best for you. It is unconditionally compassionate, affirming, and accepting. Your Self-Care voice is the voice of kindness and wisdom. It is like a loving parent who guides you to learn from your mistakes, face your challenges, and loves you unconditionally, faults and all.
By Michelle May, M.D.
I overheard someone tell her friend, “I gain five pounds every time we go on vacation so I’m on a diet until we leave.” This is yet another great example of why diets are so ineffective; you are either on one or off one. On the other hand, you never need to take a vacation from mindful eating! So how do you enjoy a vacation without counting everything you eat or “blowing it”? The solution is to shift your thinking from a Vacation Mindset to a Mindful Eating on Vacation mindset. Let’s compare the difference.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation so I’m going to eat as much as I want.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation so I’m going to eat as much as I want, but not more than I need because I still want to feel good.
Vacation Mindset: I dieted before vacation and I’ll go back on my diet when I get home to lose what I gain. I better enjoy eating while I can.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I eat what I love and love what I eat every day.
Vacation Mindset: Food is everywhere all the time so I can eat constantly.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Food is everywhere all the time so I can wait to eat until I’m actually hungry.
Vacation Mindset: There are so many great restaurants and foods to try! I’m going to try everything.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: There are so many great restaurants and foods to try! I can afford to be selective about what I use my hunger for.
Vacation Mindset: The food is amazing!
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Some of the food is amazing. When it isn’t, I don’t bother with more than a bite.
Vacation Mindset: I don’t want to miss out on anything.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: Opportunities to eat just keep showing up so there’s no need to worry about missing out on anything.
Vacation Mindset: I’m not going to worry about what I eat this week.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I eat to meet my needs for nourishment and enjoyment no matter where I am.
Vacation Mindset: I have to get my money’s worth.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I get my money’s worth when I eat exactly what I need. More than that is a waste of food and makes me feel uncomfortable.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation so I’m going to splurge.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation so I going to enjoy some new foods and new activities.
Vacation Mindset: I’m going to eat until I’m unconscious.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m going to eat until I feel content then I’m going to relax with a good book and maybe enjoy a nap.
Vacation Mindset: I’ll eat until I’m stuffed tonight but I’ll hit the gym to make up for it tomorrow.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’ll eat until I’m comfortable tonight. Maybe I’ll check out the gym tomorrow.
Vacation Mindset: I’m on vacation! Why exercise?
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I’m on vacation! Why exercise when I can swim, walk on the beach, dance, hike, go sightseeing, kayak, play golf or tennis…
Vacation Mindset: I know I’ll gain five pounds.
Mindful Eating on Vacation: I know I’ll enjoy an abundance of wonderful food and come home feeling great!
Of course, even when you aren’t on vacation, mindful eating helps in any situation where there’s an abundance of food—in other words, every other day of your life!
By Michelle May, M.D.
(This is the third article in a three part series about making dietary changes without feeding the Restrictive Eating Cycle. The first article, A Diet by Any Other Name is Still a Diet, explored the idea that when people make a voluntary change in their eating in the name of “health” without mindfulness, they may find themselves hyper-focused on food with less energy left to focus on living the healthy life they set out to achieve. The second article, Mindful Eating with Health Issues: What If I Can’t Eat What I Love?, is addresses the concerns people have about mindful eating when they have medical or health concerns. This article will apply specific strategies from the Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that help you eat better.)
If you’ve tried a restrictive diet for any reason, you’ve probably experienced the resulting feelings of deprivation and cravings that lead to the rebound effect of overeating the foods you were trying to limit. However, “eat what you love” may sound like a scary idea at first!
In fact, scary or not, all Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs use a “non-diet” approach. But until you’ve tried it, you may be afraid that without rules, you “won’t eat healthy.” You might not. At first. But as you learn this new way of making decisions about eating, just the opposite is true!
I know that may seem hard to believe—and maybe too good to be true. But if one of your goals is to “eat better,” here are seven strategies you learn about in Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs that will help (along with reminders about where to find out how to do it in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat).
Set your intention.
Mindful eating is eating with intention and attention. Assuming that your intention is to feel great, think of dietary changes as choices you make in order to feel your best both short and long term (rather than some externally applied diet). (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 6)
Consider what your body needs.
When deciding what to eat, ask three questions: What do I want? What do I need? and What do I have? The question “What do I need?” is all about acknowledging your personal health needs, including medical issues, allergies and reactions, family history, and health goals. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 5)
Use nutrition information as a tool, not a weapon.
Nutrition knowledge is helpful for making decisions, but it is not the only criteria for deciding what to eat. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 10)
Balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment.
There is room in your diet for foods eaten for pleasure! In fact, regularly including foods you love makes it less likely that you will overeat those foods because you ran out of willpower. While it may seem counter-intuitive, when you are free to eat whatever you want, food loses the power it had over you. As a result, your choices are likely to be more balanced instead of “all of nothing.” (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 5)
Don’t miss the lesson.
One of the many benefits of mindful eating is that your awareness helps you make connections between what and how much you eat and how you feel—as well as how you feel and what or how much you eat! This direct feedback is very helpful for making changes in order to feel good – not to be good. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 7)
Recognize and address your non-hunger triggers for eating.
When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating will never satisfy it. By learning to meet your other needs in more effective ways, you won’t use food for that purpose nearly as often. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 4 and Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating)
Eating is for fueling living.
In our food-abundant, diet- and weight-obsessed culture, eating occupies too much of our time, attention, and energy. Your were born with the instinctive ability to eat enough food to fuel your life. Learning how to get back to that place where you can trust your ability to manage your eating without a bunch of rules gives you a pattern of eating that you can sustain almost effortlessly. (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat chapter 8)
If you want to “eat better” for the long run, learn to eat what you love fearlessly and love what you eat mindfully!