cavemanLet me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food just yet. It hasn’t caught up.

stressThis is what compels us to believe that emotional eating is the answer.

Emotional eating is defined as eating for a purpose other than curing hunger. If you’re eating for that gooey “Mmmmm” feeling, then yes – chances are, you might be emotionally eating. Approximately 75% of all overeating is attributed to emotional eating.

Because our bodies always provide this same reaction to food in a time of stress, our body’s reward system tells us that it makes sense to eat when stressed. It’s the fastest way to rid ourselves of this negative emotion, right? Stressed out about money and bills? You’re probably going to find the cheapest and quickest way to stick something in your mouth to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. For some of us, that means we’ll be Dollar Menunaires for an hour. For some of us, that means we’ll be hittin’ up the Edy’s or Blue Bell. For others, we’ll be needing peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies.

I remember being told yearrrrrs ago by my sorority sister who was a psych professional that I really needed to focus on developing better coping skills. That I needed to find proper outlets for relieving my stress as opposed to relying on external things to relieve internal stresses. She told me that finding a way to better cope would help me feel liberated from this narrow path I had set myself on with how to make myself feel better. Using food as my only means of making myself feel better – inside AND outside of my pregnancy – is a big reason behind why I gained so much to begin with.

So, what can we do to win the struggle with our body’s natural response to stress?

  • We can make conscious efforts to take better care of ourselves. Try to avoid allowing stressors to pile up on you. Do you often run into the same types of problems? Start paying attention to yourself! No more auto pilot. Notice when the same things pop up and cause you stress, and start figuring out better ways to manage that. Decreasing the stress in your life decreases the opportunity to emotionally eat.
  • Make emotional eating more difficult. I stopped carrying cash… then I stopped carrying my wallet. Is that extreme? Very. I also had an extreme case of emotional eating. I ate to feel fulfilled. I wasn’t fulfilled. I was just… full. If traffic stresses you out so you grab some McDonalds on the ride (thus making traffic worse – I see you eating your Big Mac instead of paying attention to the stoplight), then find a stress-free route. One that doesn’t have a fast food joint on the way that’ll compel you to indulge.
  • Give yourself a break. Give yourself a reward that is more lasting than the temporary satisfaction of a chocolate chip cookie. Try to budget a liiiiiittle time for relaxation. I give myself time for yoga every single day. The way I push my body to the limits allows me to relieve stress, and I come out of it feeling light as a feather with a new perspective on how to tackle whatever was originally stressing me.
  • Awareness is key – if being at your mother-in-law’s house is a stressor that makes you feel like you have to eat in order to cope… be aware of how that triggers you. Prepare yourself with healthier comforting foods. Luckily for me, I went from Verona cookies to goldfish crackers to tea. Yes. Tea. As much as I love my mother, I fear that she might send me back to the Verona cookies, though. Ha! (I only say that because I know she reads the site. :))
  • Go shoot something. I’m only mildly joking, here. I say this on twitter all the time… I get stressed out? I grab Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and do a few missions.
  • If you know you’re stressed, make food your last resort. Turn on a good tear-jerker movie. Hit the sidewalk and take a stroll (or a jog.) Take up kickboxing. Take a hot shower.
  • Try a nap instead. If you’re prone to wanting something warm before bed, get into a nice soothing tea. I have boxessssss of tea in the cabinet. No shame in my game.
  • Seek help. Remember, even though she was my friend, I had to have a psychiatric professional shine a little light for me to help guide me on my path. I’m a big believer in support systems and if it takes adding a little help to the team to get you on the path to better help, then that’s what’s best.

How does the story end? Welllll… more on that later. (Something’s gotta keep you on the edge of your seat until next time, right? Right?!)

What are your thoughts? How does emotional eating affect you? Did you win the battle against emotional eating? How do you shift your focus away from food? Let’s talk!