There are all kinds of reasons we eat: happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, stress, exhaustion. If we’re doing it right, we might be really focused on fueling our workouts. If we’re feeling indulgent, we might eat just to enjoy the simple, luscious pleasure of the taste of a favorite food.
One of my favorite things about the Whole30 is that it doesn’t just address what we eat. It also tackles the big nasty WHY monster. My experiences with strict Whole30s has taught me to savor my food and to learn to recognize the sensation of real, natural, healthy hunger.
The best emotional gift I’ve received from eating paleo is that 95% of the time, I don’t eat solely for pleasure. That doesn’t mean my food isn’t pleasurable. Y’all know I LOVE my dino-chow and spend lots of brain power to cook up delicious combinations of meat+veg+fat.
But thanks to the things I’ve learned about my eating patterns via the Whole30, most of the time, I eat to thrive. And on those rare occasions when I do eat treats for the pure pleasure of it, I enjoy them immensely.
Which is a roundabout way to say that I enjoyed a lot of non-paleo foods in Prague and Paris. Physically, I felt pretty good. My digestive system didn’t complain, and I had plenty of energy to do workouts at CrossFit Praha and to tromp around the cobbled streets and climb the twisty stairs of castle towers.
Emotionally, however, was a different story.
Man, oh, man! I was moody! I was happy and having fun 90% of the time, but I was like an 8-year-old at a Halloween party, very sensitive to blood sugar dips (and maybe wearing a funny outfit). I had to feed the monster frequently – and I was pretty freakin’ cranky in the morning until I’d eaten.
It got me thinking, again, about all the reasons we eat and the tricks we can use to keep those reasons in balance. Now that I’m home and back on the paleo path, I’m committed to really listening to the signals in my stomach and ignoring the little demon voice that tries to trick me into thinking that I’m hungry when I’m not.
Intellectually, I’m 100% ready to eat clean, but emotionally? I miss being in Prague. I’m a little sad to be back at work. I’m slightly overwhelmed by the final stretch of cookbook production. That’s like the perfect combination of ingredients to send me into snarf mode.
But I’m not going to pander to my emotions with food, and that’s because of the valuable lessons I’ve learned during past Whole30s.
Food Will Not Permanently Change Our Emotional State
The numero uno thing that’s helped me is the realization that eating “comfort” food will not change my emotional state in the way I want. It might provide a momentary distraction – and momentary pleasure – but whatever I’m dealing with… happiness, frustration, anger, fear, worry, excitement, boredom… whatever emotional state I’m in will still exist AFTER I’ve eaten the food. And in most cases, depending on what I ate and how much, I could make my emotional state worse. The food, usually, will not make it better. The exception to this rule, of course, is if I’m eating because of real hunger. So the trick becomes (1) feeling the difference between hunger and emotional appetite; and (2) feeding the hunger with real, Whole30-approved food; and (3) feeding the emotional appetite with something other than food to recognize and validate those emotions.
That’s pretty simple to understand, but it can be a f*cking nightmare to put into practice.
The key is to be as present and mindful as possible because it’s about so much more than eating. It’s about knowing ourselves, understanding our emotional storms, and THINKING our way out of behaving in a way that’s driven by emotions.
Practically speaking, here are some tricks that have helped me:
1. I never have anything in the house that’s not Whole30 approved.
That way, if I have an unpleasant “grazing” session, I’m at least overeating on foods that won’t hurt me.
2. Drink a glass of water. Or two.
I know it sounds like an old dieters’ trick, but it also helps me slow down and THINK about what I’m doing. It’s the breather to help determine the difference between true hunger and emotional appetite.
3. Make it a challenge.
Sometimes the brat in me wins, and I think I don’t care if I’m just feeding my emotional appettite. When that happens, I appeal to that bratty side and make it like a workout. I set a 20-minute timer and challenge myself to not eat a damn thing until the timer goes off. If at the end of those 20 minutes, I’m hungry, I eat Good food. If at the end of the 20 minutes, I just still “really want something,” I give myslelf a stern talking to and ban myself from the kitchen. Sometimes it really is just about muscling it out. It’s unpleasant, but I refuse to be ruled by false messages sent to my body by my fickle emotions.
4. “Kitchen’s closed.”
I tell myself that after dinner… or in the afternoon when I want the pleasure of eating, but I’m not actually hungry. I say it out loud, “Kitchen’s closed.” I pretend I live on a cruise ship or at a resort with ridiculously tight-fisted rules about the pantry, and when the kitchen is closed, it’s CLOSED. It’s silly, but the imagination is a very powerful tool. (I do the same thing when it’s time for me to go to bed, but I don’t feel sleepy. I say to myself, “It’s time to get sleepy.” and start tricking my body into believing it.)
5. Meditate, dance, cry, talk it out.
Emotions will not be denied, so when I realize I want to eat because of an emotional appetite, I know I need to find a way to deal with those emotions. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling Dave what’s on my mind. Other times, I need to crank some music or indulge in a really good cry. Emotions are like a vampire; they will have their due and the best way to move through them is to give them attention but not the food they want. YOU don’t want that food, the emotion does. Let it go calorie-hungry and feed it with attention instead.
6. Enlist an ally.
Everyone I work with and all of you fine people and all of my Twitter and Facebook peeps know that I’m committed to dino-chow. And I know that if I turn to y’all for a word of encouragement, I’ll get it. Use the tools and people around you for support. I’m here. Likeminded people are on Twitter and Facebook. Recruit your co-workers. It’s totally OK to complain about wanting to eat; most people will sympathize… and then they can help you sort out if you’re really hungry or if something else is going on. I’m always amazed at how saying, “I really want to eat that [insert the name of something that doesn't make me healthier]!” the hold it has on me evaporates. Try it!
Are you an emotional eater? What’s your worst trigger? How do you combat the demon?
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