As I dive deeper and deeper into a hybrid lifestyle somewhere between foodie and health enthusiast, I find more and more garbage on the internet about health-related behavior. Recently it was related to “emotional eating.”
This is something that we all understand on the surface and quite frankly, that is where our understanding should stay. It really IS that simple to understand and that simple to solve. What I’ve read complicates it and makes it about an internal struggle that you would pay big bucks for a therapist to solve. Let’s look at the situation behaviorally and then solve it with something I’m calling SWATTT and Replace.
Understanding emotional eating is more digestible (see what I did there :) ) when you use the three-term contingency to understand it as a behavior, how this behavior has been created and why it continues. The history typically looks something like this:
But, this isn’t rocket science, you knew all of this already, right? So what now?
This is one of those behaviors that is really difficult. You can’t change the effect that eating sugar will have on you. In behavior analysis, one of the best ways to fix a behavioral issue is to understand the consequences that support a maladaptive behavior and lessen their effect, take away the maintaining consequence altogether or replace the consequence with something else that serves the same function for the individual but is more adaptive. When it comes to stress-eating sugar, if you eat it, it will be yummy and it will make you feel better. There is no removing that.
“STRESS EATING For a pick-me-up, you may feel the urge to inhale a bag of M&M's or scarf down a box of cookies. But the impulse goes deeper. To examine the hold sugar can have over us, substance-abuse researchers have performed brain scans on subjects eating something sweet. What they've seen resembles the mind of a drug addict: When tasting sugar, the brain lights up in the same regions as it would in an alcoholic with a bottle of gin. Dopamine—the so-called reward chemical—spikes and reinforces the desire to have more. (Sugar also fuels the calming hormone serotonin.)"
The consequence for the behavior will always be reinforcing. It’s the same for drinking alcohol to relieve stress. However since the consequences for society are so high, science has actually come up with a way to reduce the effects of this reinforcing consequence for drinking alcohol when it becomes maladaptive. Medications have been created to reduce the reinforcing effects of alcohol (Naltrexone) and even reverse the consequence so that it is now punishing instead by basically giving you an immediate and intense hangover (Antabuse).
Without those extreme solutions we have other options at our disposal once we understand the three-term contingency that surrounds the behavior of emotional eating.
I’m using a tool I’m coining called SWATTT and Replace Emotional Eating. Here is the acronym broken down:
Start With Antecedents- Take it away; Tune out; Talk to enablers
Start with the antecedents. What are the things that prompt or trigger the behavior? If you can remove these and never engage in the behavior in the first place, we don’t have to worry about the strong maintaining consequences. The next three items are some of the commonly used options for dealing with antecedents under these circumstances. You may only need to do one or you may need all three. You also can also add or replace these with others but the idea is to remove those antecedents that get emotional eating going.
Take it away. Throw it away. Move it off the counter or to a higher shelf. Give it to your significant other to have the ability to hand it out to you only in small doses or when appropriate but the one thing you MUST stop doing is having it when you are stressed or emotional. You must begin to break that association of stress/sadness/frustration+sugar. Bottom line, make it harder to just plain impossible to access when you are stressed out.
Tune out. Studies have shown that engaging in something else can decrease the urges to snack. It’s true. If you distract yourself the pang will subside. The most effective distractions will be ones that a) don’t allow your mind to wander and b) are incompatible with eating- meaning, don’t do something that allows you to still eat (ie. Watching television). Do something that busies your hands and your mind.
Talk to those who enable your behavior. Talk to your friends and your mom about not allowing dessert dates. Tell them what this means to you and how important the change is to your life. Perhaps even set up a contract to create some potential consequences for not following through. Maybe they need to donate to your workout account if they suggest eating when you call them stressed out (“that will be $34 dollars for a SoulCycle class, please and thank you!”) Whatever you do, get them on board to support you and stop providing you with the prompts and triggers to engage in this behavior.
Replace the behavior with something else that will reduce the extreme emotion (like stress). In more scientific terms, replace the behavior with something else that will result in a consequence with the same function.
In order to truly have success at removing this behavior, it’s important that you replace the behavior with another behavior. The new behavior is something more than just a distraction to reduce the pang of hunger. This new behavior should be the new “go-to” when you are stressed and should have a consequence that serves the same function as the stress/emotional eating. Meaning that it should ALSO reduce your stress levels. Maybe it’s yoga when you are feeling down? I’ve found that aerial yoga feels really good and is a great stress-relieving activity. Or you might try a long bath with aroma therapy. This way you are still focusing on strong senses (touch and smell) and relieving stress but not eating. The only thing you miiiigggghhhtt want to steer clear from is baking…even if it is stress-relieving ;)
It’s tough to do everything you want to do meanwhile engaging in behaviors that support the identity you want in life. I really enjoy being a traveler and an entrepreneur, a foodie/health enthusiast and business-woman. Some of these identities however don't always jive so well with keeping emotional levels in check. We all deal with this and I, like others, have turned to a variety of things to ease my stress. This is a good thing. Stress is bad for you. But so is overeating things like sugar. This just adds another burden to your life and the long-term consequences simply. aren’t. worth it. I hope SWATTT and Replace is a helpful and easy way to make a change if you find yourself eating to ease emotional pain.
….Just remember that a pint of ice-cream with Grey’s Anatomy is probably not the same thing :) Regulate as it makes the most sense for you, your life and the person you want to be.