Eating because you’re sad.
Eating because you’re lonely.
Eating because you’re stressed.
If you struggle with your weight, chances are good you’ve done one or all of these things. Maybe that one comforting cookie turns into two…three…five — and before you know it, there’s an empty package in front of you.
Do you feel better afterward? Probably not. You probably feel guilty and ashamed and angry with yourself. And you vow never again to eat under the influence of emotions. But you know that you will.
And psychologist Pavel G. Somov thinks that’s okay. Whatever gets you through the night.
In Mindful Emotional Eating, Somov argues that emotional eating has been unnecessarily demonized.
“The clinical field of eating disorders,” he writes, “has been stuck in a perfectionist, purist, puritanical mindset on the issue of emotional eating: ‘Emotional eating is bad. We must end it. It’s self-destructive.’”
But, Somov writes, emotional eating is a perfectly normal and acceptable coping strategy — and, in fact, all eating has an emotional element: Eating for pleasure and eating to reduce distress are “two sides of the same coin.” Both are emotional, he posits, yet we celebrate one and denigrate the other.
The problem, Somov writes, is not emotional eating itself — it’s mindless emotional eating that leads to emotional overeating. In other words, the problem is not that first soothing cookie or two. It’s when you mindlessly munch through the rest of the bag.
The solution, he argues, and the focus of this book, is to learn to be mindful about emotional eating. To enjoy it and let it provide the pleasure and stress reduction you crave, rather than to just chew and swallow in a trance until you wake up feeling ashamed. Mindless eating can lead to binges — when you keep chasing the emotional relief you aren’t paying attention enough to feel. Somov encourages us, instead, to accept emotional eating, but do it in a way that’s mindful, and less self-destructive.
The book is written as a guide for clinicians as well as self-help for lay readers, and does a pretty good job of addressing both audiences in a friendly, accessible voice. And for those of us who are not mental health professionals, it’s a peek behind the curtain of the therapeutic process; we get to see the language Somov suggests clinicians use with clients in teaching these strategies.
The book first asks us to “jumpstart” mindful emotional eating, and gives clear, concrete suggestions to do so. For instance, Somov describes relaxation techniques to use before you take your first bite, in order to connect yourself with your body.
Then, there’s pattern interruption. The mind is not lazy, Somov writes, it is economical. And if it can just put itself on autopilot without having to think through every decision, it will.
“Once a behavior goes on autopilot it tends to stay there,” Somov explains. “Going off the autopilot is a mini-shock of sorts, a pattern break, and as such, a mini-awakening.”
And so the book provides strategies for you (0r your clients) to use at the table — ways to get out of the pattern, such as eating with your eyes closed or with your non-dominant hand.
On becoming conscious of cravings and finding ways to stop eating when your body and mind have had enough, Somov get a little Buddhist. He writes that we can learn to “stop without stopping,” to sit on the riverbank and watch cravings drift by. Here again Somov provides strategies for grasping these concepts, broken down into smaller steps. In this case, he suggests sitting quietly and making a dot on a piece of paper every time you have a new thought. In this way, you learn to recognize what it means to sit on the riverbank and observe the flowing river of your mind, and to see how often your mind changes direction.
“Just because you have a desire for emotional eating, just because you want to eat to cope, it doesn’t mean that you automatically should,” Somov writes. “Take a few moments to sit on the riverbank of your mind to see if this desire passes. If it doesn’t, if it lingers, then of course, yes, you can proceed to a mindful emotional eating episode. But this way you will do it from a position of choice and you will stand a better chance of success than if you were to rush into mindful emotional eating on the first fleeting desire to eat to cope.”
This same technique, according to Somov, can help end an episode of emotional eating before you are uncomfortably full.
“After your first serving of comfort food of your choice or as soon as you begin to experience the onset of pleasant fullness or the emerging sense of emotional relief,” he writes, “hit the pause button and spend a few moments on this riverbank to see if you are feeling better and to see if there are any somatic signs that you should stop here.”
Because, Somov points out, it isn’t necessary to avoid emotional eating, but it is important to prevent binging. (Still, he advocates self-compassion for those times when you do succumb to the binge.) To that end, he writes about how clinicians can approach clients who are not interested in controlling their bingeing. He also delves into underlying issues, discusses motivation and willpower depletion, and talks about strategies for boredom and emptiness, sadness and grief, anger and fear, and stress.
Mindful Emotional Eating is refreshing and reassuring. The combination of clearly articulated philosophy and concrete strategies makes it a useful tool — whether you’re a clinician working with clients who have eating disorders, or an individual who wants to understand and control your own emotional eating.
Sophia Dembling is author of Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After.
Mindful Emotional Eating: Mindfulness Skills to Control Cravings, Eat in Moderation and Optimize Coping
Pesi Publishing & Media, January 2015
Paperback, 170 pages