02/13/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Emotional Eating to Emotional Connection

Do you eat for emotional reasons?

Of course you do -- everybody does! From birth, we develop powerful emotional connections to feeding, eating, and food. In our food-abundant environment, eating is a readily-accessible way to add pleasure to our lives. We eat to socialize, nurture, express love, have fun, soothe a hurt, and reward ourselves for a job well done.

Emotional eating only becomes a problem when it's overused to cope with or avoid feelings. If you feel that your emotional connections to food are causing problems for you, the following suggestions will help bring emotional eating back into balance.

Avoid labeling yourself (or your client) "an emotional eater." Labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, identify the behavior (example: emotional eating, eating when I feel stressed, using food for comfort, eating as a form of entertainment), since unlike personality characteristics, behaviors can be explored and changed.

Recognize that diets don't resolve emotional eating. In fact, for many people, restriction, deprivation, and guilt as a result of dieting are powerful emotional triggers for overeating. (This is what I call "the eat-repent-repeat cycle.")

Get back to the basics. To identify emotional triggers, ask, "Am I hungry?" whenever you feel like eating. If there are no physical signs of hunger, it's likely that the urge to eat was triggered by environmental or emotional cues.

Leave judgment at the door. Guilt and shame feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle and close the door on learning.

Have compassion for yourself. When you eat for emotional reasons, you are simply trying to take care of yourself. What could you do that might work better?

Respond instead of react. Realize that a "trigger" is just that -- a coping mechanism that you can choose to pull or not. Choose how you'll respond to your triggers instead of reacting automatically.

Read the need. Your desire to eat when you aren't hungry is a doorway into your underlying feelings and needs.

Cravings can be clues. The food you crave may give you insight into the underlying emotion or need -- i.e., comfort food. For example, when I'm craving chocolate even though I'm not hungry, I'm probably bored of working at my desk or feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break. Learn to recognize your own food-mood associations.

Avoid labeling emotions as "good" or "bad," or "positive" or "negative." While it's true that some emotions are more uncomfortable than others, all emotions are information that you can use to better understand your interpretation of an experience and help you identify your true needs.

This, too, shall pass. Ride your emotional waves as if you were floating on a raft. All emotions come and go. It is futile to resist the ones that feel unpleasant; resistance only adds to your discomfort. Likewise, it is pointless to cling to the emotions that feel pleasant; just enjoy them while they last.

Create a self-care buffer zone. Caring for your body, mind, heart, and spirit builds your resilience to life stress. When you practice regular self-care, you will be less likely to turn to food to manage your emotions.

Ask for help when needed. Reach out to an counselor, coach, or support group to help you understand and cope with emotional eating.

I am grateful that I've been able to heal the emotional connections to food that weren't serving my highest good. Now I embrace my healthy "emotional eating" and can freely enjoy the pleasure of cooking with my chef-husband, dining with my friends and family, and savoring a fabulous piece of chocolate -- simply for pleasure! I've shared that process in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, and it gives me tremendous pleasure to hear from people who now have their healthy emotional eating back again, too!

For more by Michelle May, M.D., click here.

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