Are you a self-declared Superwoman flying from one “need-to-check-the-box” goal to another throughout your day? Do you feel like your work is never done? But, when you become depleted, instead of taking time to recharge with rest, relaxation or fun, you keep going and going and getting more stressed along the way? And, the more stressed you feel, the more you turn to food — that universal quick-fix — for comfort. You are not alone.
Research from the University of Florida has found that stress causes the desire to eat. When you feel something your body perceives as a threat, like rushing to get somewhere or worrying, your body goes into stress mode. Stress makes your body think it’s under attack, so you turn to food because it provides the comfort your body craves. But sadly, the more you turn to food, the more you start worrying about food — and you have one more thing to stress over.
I’ve been there. Years ago, I tried to keep my Superwoman persona going. But with young children, an intense start-up business, and a robust sugar addiction, I crashed. I physically collapsed. My journey back to health took many twists and turns as I looked for answers. Eventually, I started to pay attention to what my body was feeling. It held the answers I had looked for everywhere else except where it mattered.
You can break out of this cycle before you crash and burn. And the good news is that it won’t require any self-recrimination, scale-hovering, or endless deprivation.
Use these tips to develop a new body awareness and defeat your food obsession:
1. Recognize that hunger is not the cause, but the symptom. Obsessing about food has less to do with food and more to do with your “go-to” escape from stress. Start noticing when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. Are you bored? Looking for a distraction? Tired? Angry? When you notice that you want to flee something, is your response to reach for food? Challenge your craving for food and ask yourself if you’re really “hungry” for something else.
2. Pause and ask yourself questions when you’re hungry. Take an investigative approach to your hunger signals to undercover their root cause. When you notice you’re hungry, ask yourself: What does hunger feel like to me? How long ago did I eat? What am I doing right now? Is there something specific that I’m craving? Am I eating for a reason other than hunger?
3. Identify the symptoms that trigger your “eat fest.” Eating to soothe or hide feelings means an emotional trigger is at work. Or, if you find it difficult to stop eating a particular food, a chemical trigger may be at work. Some foods have chemicals in them that are addictive: sugar, gluten, cheese, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners are the biggies. Understand your triggers and use strategies to avoid them. For example, if there’s a plate of cookies at a party, don’t help yourself until all but one is gone, so you eat only one. Unless you’re allergic to a food, you may not need to deprive yourself completely by moving your trigger foods from your “everyday” to your “sometimes” list.
4. Give your body a one-week restart. After a period of overindulgence, such as the holidays or a vacation, give your body a rest from these foods: sugar, dairy, gluten, soy, alcohol, processed foods, and artificial sweeteners. Keep or add in: fresh organic vegetables, high-quality proteins, healthy fats, fresh organic fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds. After you’ve cleaned out your body, bring back those foods you took a break from one at a time and see how they make you feel. This is a good way to pinpoint your particular trigger foods.
5. Don’t beat yourself up. Learning to have a healthier relationship with food is learning to better understand yourself and find the right balance that works for you. The problem with an all-or-nothing approach to healthy eating is that it’s not sustainable. The goal is to feel good and to appropriately deal with stress. Rather than labeling foods as good or bad, think about them as “more often” and “less often.” Putting a negative connotation on our food choices only fuels the fire of self-judgment and keeps us in that awful stress mode. Tell yourself: Success is not about perfection; it’s about how many times I get back on track after falling off.