Take Charge of Your Eating

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Dr. Mirgain on NBC-15

Dr. Mirgain discusses tips for managing emotional eating. Watch the interview


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Dr. Shilagh Mirgain offers ways to improve your well-being at work.

Crave fast food, cookies or ice cream when you're stressed? There may be a biological reason for that. Studies have suggested that when our bodies are under stress, we tend to crave foods high in fat, sugar or both.


Those so-called "comfort foods" may be exactly that – they feed that part of our brains that process stress and related emotions and, in a way, calms them down.


And while many of us tend to eat when stressed, some people also turn to food to deal with distressing emotions. It's hard to face sadness or anger, and food can become a way to manage the feelings. The problem is, once the cookies or other comfort foods are finished, the emotions still remain.


Whether you're feeling stressed, or dealing with challenging emotions, there are strategies you can use to resist the urge. And there's no better time to put them to practice than during the holidays.


Busy schedules, visits with extended family, coupled with a seeming endless supply of sweet treats and rich foods, it's easy to over-indulge. But the satisfaction is only temporary, and the results can be long lasting. Whether it's weight gain (typically a pound over the holidays alone), or even feelings of depression, turning to food can leave us feeling even worse. But there are ways to break the emotional eating cycle. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, offers some tips to help you get back on track and take care of yourself all year long.


Cultivate Self-Awareness


There are many reasons people eat that have nothing to do with hunger. The first step is figuring out where the cravings are coming from.


"Awareness is the key to breaking free from emotional eating," says Mirgain.

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To begin developing awareness, Mirgain recommends tuning into your body throughout the day. Notice your hunger levels, observe the way your emotions affect your decision to eat. Identify those situations, triggers or even people that push you off track.


Keeping a food diary is another activity that can help. And there are even phone apps that can make it easier to do. Keeping track of your food and mood can help you learn about your eating habits, and even just a few weeks is enough to provide you with some insights.


Are you self-critical? It could be your automatic thoughts are self-sabotaging your efforts to eat healthy. When you catch yourself thinking critically, try being more encouraging to yourself. One study found that a key factor in determining whether a person loses weight is the amount of self-compassion they have toward the process.


Take Five


"When you're hit with a craving, put off eating for 5 minutes," says Mirgain. And then use the time to check-in with yourself - What is going on emotionally? What are you truly hungry for? IS food really the solution to this emotional upset or unhappiness? What is a healthier way to cope?


Use the opportunity to do a brief breathing exercise – breathe in while counting to four, and with the out-breath lengthen it by mentally counting out six. Repeat 10 times, and then make your decision.


"Pausing and using a simple breath exercise can help you begin to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger," she explains.


A Note About Emotional Hunger


Experiencing emotional hunger is different than physical hunger. It tends to come on suddenly, is often for a specific food and you're often not conscious of what you are eating. You could eat a whole bag of chips without realizing it. And that's the challenge with emotional hunger – you tend to eat past the point of fullness and only stop when the emotion or stress has quieted.


Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn't actually fix any problems, and can actually make them worse. It's that moment of realizing you ate the whole pint of ice cream – there can be feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment or even depression that can lead to more emotional eating in the future.


"Taking five creates space to make a different choice so you aren't using food," adds Mirgain.


Some find that using a mantra or self-talk can also help. Repeating phrases like, "I can get through this," or "It will pass" can help create a feeling of calm. And Mirgain recommends empowering words – "I choose not to eat that piece of pie" rather than "I can't" can help you feel more in control.


Learn What Truly Nourishes You


"It's important to find other ways to feed your feelings," Mirgain says. "But, we often aren't very good at knowing what that is."


Do something for yourself that makes you feel good – call a friend, take the dog for a walk, exercise, take a bath, watch a funny video or show, get out into nature. Positive and supportive experiences can help create a buffer against the effects of stress. That's why it's also important to take care of the basics – get plenty of sleep and eat regularly. Letting yourself get too hungry or too tired is the best way to leave yourself vulnerable to emotional eating.


Practice Mindful Eating


When it comes to eating, it's not just about the food, but how you eat that matters. Distractions like television or other screens can cause you to feel unsatisfied after a meal because you weren't paying attention. When you practice mindful eating, you can learn to focus on the moment and savor every bite. Consider trying a mindful eating practice, like this one from Dr. Mirgain.


Date Published: 11/18/2015

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgainwellness

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