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Week 4

Emotional vs. Intentional Eating

Emotional Eating 


Emotional eating is simply, eating in response to emotions rather than hunger. The emotions may be negative such as, anger, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, stress, fatigue, boredom, sadness or depression. Emotional eating may also come from the emotions of joy, happiness, celebration, comfort or excitement. It can be conscious or unconscious. People eat to feel good, take their mind off their problems, because they are bored or lonely, to feel safe and secure, to reward themselves, to avoid hunger or to express joy. Emotional eating is often unplanned and uncontrolled. 


Individuals who chose bariatric surgery after facing years of hardship fighting obesity made the following statements:


“When I ate, I ate to fill a void.”

“I was feeding my emotions as opposed to my stomach.”

“I found solace in food.”

“You don’t just lose your weight; you lose your security blanket”


All of these statements relate to the individual’s attempt to find a sense of fulfillment with food. An important part of the recovery process after weight loss surgery has to do with learning new ways to “nourish” oneself without using food. 


It is natural to turn to food when there is stress, anxiety or depression. Our bodies have recognized over the years that eating in these situations does make us feel better. Our brain chemistry is actually changed when we eat our favorite comfort foods. We feel “nourished” and comforted by the food. Over time, comforting ourselves with food becomes a habit. It can be a difficult habit to overcome. However, eating in response to emotions does not change the situation or solve the problem. It just causes weight gain. We all need strategies to deal with emotions and to learn to nourish ourselves without the use of food. 


Strategies to Reduce Emotional Eating
Finding healthy, balanced ways to deal with your emotions is an important tool to have in your toolbox of post-bariatric surgery strategies. Using these tools when you have smaller emotional needs will help prepare you for those times when life becomes overwhelming.


       Rate your hunger level before you consume any unplanned food or drink with a “1” being extremely hungry and a “10” being very full. If your hunger level is on the upper half of the scale, think about what else may be triggering you to eat. To break the cycle, distract yourself from eating for 10-15 minutes. Engage in an activity that is not conducive to eating such as taking a shower, talking on the phone, running an errand or taking a walk. Usually the urge for emotional eating will subside after that length of time.


       Reward yourself or celebrate by buying yourself a non-food treat, taking a bubble bath or getting a massage.


       Get up and move. Exercise also changes brain chemistry that can improve your mood, decrease your stress, and help you to deal with emotions in a non-food manner.


       Talk to the person that is making you angry, upset or frustrated or talk to a friend about the situation.


       Make constructive plans to change negative situations in your life. If you eat a ½ gallon of ice cream, the situation has not changed, but your waistline has. 


       Learn stress reduction techniques.

       Eat six small protein-rich meals throughout the day. Components in many protein-rich foods including milk, turkey, fish and seafood, eggs, seeds, soy and nuts help to boost serotonin production—helping improve your mood.

       Avoid added sugar which quickly raises blood sugar levels followed by a big drop. Instead fuel with healthy carbohydrates combined with protein-rich foods for a steady blood sugar level to keep serotonin levels on an even keel.

       Don’t cut the fat content of your diet too far. Small amounts of nuts, seeds, and unsaturated oils are important for good health and happy moods. 

       Get out in the sun or use a SAD light on dreary days. Research has found a clear association between being exposed to bright light and serotonin levels.

       Be positive. Facing daily life with a positive outlook can help you make healthier choices.  

       Hang out with friends or family members do non-food related activities.   

       Find new, non-food ways to provide comfort. Soaking in a warm tub, talking to a friend, drinking a soothing cup of tea or sugar-free hot cocoa, watching a favorite movie, re-reading a beloved book, snuggling with a pet, deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.

       Find healthy ways to make your favorite comfort food.


Get Help if You Need It
You may need to seek out professional help to deal with unresolved issues or events that have happened in your life that are preventing you from maintaining long-term weight loss. Excess weight may be a protective coat, sheltering you from the vulnerabilities of this world.  Seek help so that you can move beyond what is holding you back from the healthy life that you deserve. 


Intentional Eating


The opposite of emotional eating is intentional eating. You may find that focusing on intentional eating (what to do) rather than your emotional drive to eat (what not to do) helps to regulate your eating behaviors.


Remember right after weight loss surgery, when you were very attentive and intentional about what, when and how you ate. You took small sips and later small bites, taking care to be very deliberate. You selected foods and beverages based on the post-surgery diet progression, fluid and protein goals. Protein grams were counted and labels closely read. You probably felt in control of your eating, which may have been very different than what you experienced before surgery. Excess weight dropped rapidly, medications become a thing of the past and there was renewed health and wellness.


As time goes on, the natural tendency is for the focus to slowly shift away from eating to simply living life. Many good choices are still made, but the focus on eating is not as pronounced. There is danger to this shift in focus. Without focus, there is a tendency to overeat and not even recall what or how much was eaten shortly after finishing. When the attention to eating wanes, control over what is being eaten can be lost. Control can be lost to emotions, situations, food availability, and habits. Food may again be relied on as friendship, entertainment, numbing of feelings, and a host of purposes other than nourishing the body. Intentional eating can help keep the focus on healthy eating and provide boundaries and control. 


Just what is intentional eating? Intentional eating is focusing on, tasting, savoring and enjoying small amounts of healthy foods. It is keeping your thoughts focused on eating throughout the entire meal or snack rather than watching TV, thinking about bills that need to be paid, or deciding on tomorrow’s outfit. This focused attention can change the way you approach, enjoy and relate to food.


So Many Choices
Eating is a process. There are many choices that are made while eating. You decide what type of food or beverage, where it is eaten, when it is eaten, how much is eaten, what size of a bite is taken, how many times you chew before swallowing, how much time is taken between bites, when to stop eating, and many other small choices throughout the meal. Most of these decisions have become automatic and unconscious. Intentional eating can help to put us back in touch with the process of eating and give us the power to make better choices.


Intentional Eating Tips
Intentional eating sounds like an easy concept, but in reality can be hard to implement in this hurry-up world. It takes effort, practice and a lot of repetition before it takes hold.  Below are some ideas to get you started.


One simple way to be fully aware during your meal is to ask yourself these questions before you start and throughout the meal or snack.


·         What do I see?

·         What do I hear?

·         What do I smell?

·         What do I taste?

·         What am I touching or feeling?


Cut up all of your food into ideal-sized bites at the beginning of the meal. Don’t start eating until all of the food is cut. Eat each bite with full attention, tasting, savoring, smelling, and feeling the food. Eat slowly and pause, setting down your fork, between bites.


Take Time to Listen to Your Body
Part of intentional eating is to tune into your body’s needs. It’s hard to discern hunger signals when hurried and distracted. Is it hunger or fatigue? Is it hunger or anger? Is it hunger or boredom? If you eat when you are tired, you’ll just be full and tired. Your body needs rest, not food. If you eat when you are angry, you’ll be full and angry. Food only satisfies when it is consumed in response to hunger. Hunger signals are often especially hard to discern after weight loss surgery. If you don’t feel hunger, eating small frequent meals, about every 2 ½ hours, can help insure that you’re eating when you need to. If you feel the urge to eat between these meals, stop and listen to what your body is telling you. Do your best to respond by giving it what it needs, not to numb it with food.


Portions Matter
If portion sizes have expanded beyond 1 cup of solid food, mindless or emotional eating most likely plays a role. Create a physical pause in your meal to bring more awareness to the portion of food you are eating. Do this by using a small salad plate and measuring out ½ cup of total food. You might select ¼ cup of two different foods or 2 tablespoons of 4 different foods.  Eat that food slowly, taking small bites and chewing well. If you would like to eat more when that food is gone, measure and place ¼ cup of food on your plate. Eat that food slowly, taking small bites and chewing well. If you would still like to eat more, place another ¼ cup of food on your plate. This works well at a restaurant, family gathering or most situations if you transfer food in small portions from the served plate to a smaller salad plate. 


Have a Plan
Intentional eating starts well before the food is on our plate. Planning and preparing are essential to having the right foods available. Plan out foods for the upcoming week, shop, and prepare ahead of time. A well-thought-out plan puts you in control of what you eat.


In summary, intentional eating is all about control, balance, enjoyment and awareness. Putting in the effort to move your eating experience from happenstance to intentional will pay off by putting you back in the driver’s seat. 

Activity 1
Make up meal plans for the upcoming week. Include 3 meals and 3 healthy snacks.


Activity 2
Record the times that you encountered the a situation in which you desired to eat a food that was not on your meal plan, the food desired, hunger level with “1” being famished and “10 being very full,  the strategy used to distract yourself from eating and the effectiveness of that strategy. Download this Emotional Eating Activity at the top of the page. 



Situation/Emotional Trigger

Food Desired

Hunger Level

Strategy for Distraction


































































































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