I was feeling sluggish and tired. I was sleeping at night, but not getting good sleep. When I put on jeans, I felt an overwhelming urge to secretly unbutton that top button.
After scrolling through Instagram and seeing friend after friend raving about the results of the Whole30 eating plan, my husband and I decided to give it try together. The “Whole30” is a 30-day meal plan that emphasizes whole foods, during which participants eliminate sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy and dairy.
It’s worth noting now that this article is not simply a reflection on this meal plan. There are a plethora of articles to read about the process of completing Whole30—some people love it, some hate it. While I did love the physical results of this 30-day challenge, I discovered something much more powerful than my loss of bloating and extra weight (although I did appreciate those as well).
I discovered that food was too important to me. And that without ever truly grasping the severity of it, I have been using food as a crutch for my emotions. I had developed a habit of emotional eating.
For many of us, when we are stressed, anxious, bored or lonely we can easily be triggered to eat. I had always known food provided comfort for me at times, or acted as a reward for exciting events—but I had never been forced to really face how often.
It all began to sink in around day 3 of Whole30. For the first couple of days, I charged bravely into the challenge with high hopes and confidence. Having been an athlete my whole life, I felt like I had the physical discipline to abstain from certain foods for the sake of a physical gain.
And then I had a stressful morning at work.
I had bitten off more than I could chew and was feeling behind and overwhelmed. Because I work from home, I also had the added bonus of staring at a pile of laundry and a messy kitchen that were fighting for my attention and increasing my anxiety.
All I wanted to do was pack up my laptop and go work at my favorite coffee shop so I could get a delicious vanilla latte and one of my favorite, gooey chocolate chip cookies. But I didn’t just want to do it, it felt like my brain was demanding that I did it. Knowing very well that the sugary drink and treat were not a possibility on my meal plan, I tried to shake it from my mind. But I was experiencing all kinds of confusing reactions that seemed totally disproportionate to a simple inconvenience—I was experiencing anxiety, nervousness, actual anger. All because a grown woman couldn’t eat a cookie when she wanted to.
So I began to study my eating patterns and my emotional reactions more closely.
Emotional eating (aka stress eating) is often talked about with an attitude of comedy:
Your boyfriend broke up with you? Girl, have some ice cream.
Stressful day at work? Pizza binge on the couch with a bottle of wine!
Feeling overwhelmed? Make a beautiful cup of coffee with a delicious treat that you can eat at your desk.
This type of emotional eating is affirmed by our culture and media to the point that it is ingrained in routines and emotional processing. Without realizing it, our emotional eating habits are adopted by our bodies, forming addictions that are hard to break. When I embarked on Whole30, I not only realized that I was addicted to sugar from the headaches during my days of withdrawals, but I realized that my emotional eating withdrawals were much worse. For the first two weeks, my body felt better because I was less bloated, gained more energy and was losing weight, but more importantly, I was forced to relearn ways to cope with my emotions that did not involve food.
Despite eating a healthy, balanced diet for my three meals a day, I learned that the majority of emotional eating can often happen in the in-between moments—and that there are some common triggers that spark this type of eating.
Therapists call this “unconscious eating” because it is just that: eating without fully realizing it. For example, when you’re not hungry anymore but still have food on your plate that you mindlessly pick at. Or when you pass by the chocolate jar at work and pop a piece in your mouth just because it was there. It makes you feel good to do it, but you stop keeping track of what you’re putting in your mouth.
One way to start the process of kicking this habit is to write down every single thing that you eat for a week. Yes, it’s tedious but it forces you to face all the unconscious eating you do throughout the day head-on.
2. Seeking Distractions Instead of Solving Problems
Unfortunately, when we experience pain, stress, anxiety or depression, we sometimes seek a distraction versus putting in work to address the root of the problem. If you are avoiding experiencing unpleasant emotions or addressing areas of challenge in your life, it can make you very vulnerable to emotional eating.
In my case, I wasn’t experiencing a particular hardship like grief, loss or depression—I was tired and stressed from over-committing myself. During my 30 challenge, I realized that the times that I turned to emotional eating were the times I was stressed and feeling overwhelmed. By overstretching myself and saying “yes!” to too many people and commitments, I was actually putting my physical and emotional health in jeopardy—but what I learned was that I was using food and emotional eating to help ease that stress instead of going to the root of the problem and just making a needed change to my commitments and lifestyle.
And when the inevitable moments of stress and anxiety do rear their ugly heads, I’ve now turned to more focused, healthy ways to cope. Prayer, meditation, exercise and music are much better ways for me to handle those moments of feeling overwhelmed.
3. Body Dissatisfaction
It may seem backward, but feelings of shame, negativity or hate surrounding your body image actually increase emotional eating and hinder your ability to make positive improvements to your eating habits that you want to. This kind of relationship with your body image can be especially high in former athletes.
Food psychologists often hear people say that they will stop hating their body once they reach their goals. However, we need to stop hating our body in order to reach those goals. Working towards a weight goal is great, but body hate is not.
Getting to a place where you start emotional eating sometimes means that you haven’t been treating your body as kindly as you should be. Becoming overly tired or hungry are two main factors that leave you vulnerable to emotional eating. This is because when your body feels hungry or tired, it sends strong messages to your brain that it’s time to eat, but you’re not in a place to make the best choices about what you eat—you’re not as equipped to fight off cravings as you would be when you’re on your A Game.
Give your body a fighting chance by giving yourself plenty of sleep and eating regular, balanced meals that keep your body fueled and happy.
Once my 30 days was complete, I had lost weight, felt less bloated, slept better, had clearer skin and new cooking techniques in my back pocket. But the emotional and mental change I felt in myself was what was truly empowering. I felt in control and equipped to handle stress in new, healthier ways. I had addressed some challenges in my lifestyle that needed changing.
Emotional eating is powerful relief—which is why so many people become addicted to it! However, in turning your focus back on a healthy mind, spirit and body, you might find that you, alone are capable of bringing yourself peace, not that chocolate chip cookie.