stewarding emotional eating

stewarding emotional eating

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Stewarding seems like an odd word to use around emotional eating: emotional eating is “bad,” and most of us try to beat, control, conquer, manage, and/or tackle it—certainly not take care of it.

And there’s a reason I started to avoid these words.

As a health coach, I’m trained to look for patterns in our relationships with food—both the primary and secondary varieties—because most often, how we do one thing is how we do everything. How we show up in the kitchen or at the table (or, in many cases, how we’ don’t show up there) is frequently a reflection of how we show up in our relationships, our careers, our spiritual practices, our physical activity.

So if you try to beat/control/conquer/manage/tackle your emotional eating, you may well approach your work, your workouts, your sleep, and all your other primary foods the same way.

message in a body

Emotional eating (often interchangeable with stress eating) may well be the reason that 61% of Americans experienced weight gain during the pandemic—to the tune of an average 29 pounds!

I suspect the quick fix diet/cleanse/detox/bariatric surgery industrial complex is not exactly sad about this news. And before you jump on that instant gratification train (because how well has it worked for you in the past?), let’s take a closer look at your emotional eating.

When we take an allopathic approach to deal with weight gain—diet, detox, cleanse, surgery—we are treating the symptom, not the cause. A more functional/integrative approach would be to take a look at why we’re gaining weight and address the cause. I’m not against addressing the symptoms in the short term using some of the gentler interventions—and if we don’t address the cause, the problem will only come back.

Emotional eating is much the same: if sweets are your downfall, you can intervene by banning them from your house, turning to artificial sweeteners or healthier alternatives for sweets, or even taking an appetite suppressant or other medication to take the edge off your emotions or your hunger. Again, I don’t recommend some of these, but that’s a different topic—these are simply a list of things clients have tried in the past with varying degrees of success since we’re all bio-individual.

As with other numbing mechanisms, though, once the sweets are out of the house, you might turn to alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, bingeing streaming services: you’ve removed the sweets but not the reason you crave them and not the emotions you’re trying to suppress with their help.

This approach treats emotional eating as a problem, and as I learned in my grant-writing days, it’s always possible to reframe a problem as an opportunity! Emotional eating (and its frequent partner, unwanted weight change—usually, but not always weight gain) is a message from your body: “Hello—can we talk? Something’s come up, and I need you to pay some attention to me.”

You’re given one physical body in which to have this earthly spiritual experience this time around. And if you don’t take care of it, where are you going to live?

stewarding emotional eating

In my health coach training, we learned to look at the root causes of emotional eating rather than simply treating the symptoms (such as weight gain): it’s often not enough to recognize that we’re eating emotionally. It’s important to not only look at what triggered the emotion and what the emotion is—the most vital step in addressing the eating is figuring out what the emotion really wants from us.

It’s not an easy task, figuring that out, and I like to give the example of a toddler: if you consider a toddler in the middle of a melt-down, unless it’s way past mealtime or you just passed the candy aisle, the cause is unlikely to be hunger; rather, she’s probably angry, tired, frustrated, or scared.

And if you asked her what she wants, she probably would like a hug, a favorite toy, your attention, your time, a kind word. Most toddlers are still in touch enough with their bodies that they won’t ask for ice cream when what they really want is to be picked up and cuddled.

The integrative approach listens for the body’s messages and responds to what the body wants with an appropriate form of nourishment—whether it’s primary foods or better choice secondary foods.

Beating/controlling/conquering/managing/tackling emotional eating is a way to address the symptoms and suppress the root cause: it’s like expending a whole lot of energy trying to keep a well-inflated beach ball underwater—after all that energy, the moment you relax your attention or your grip, it’s going to resurface, probably with a vengeance, and smack you in the face.

I use the word “stewarding” because it means “to take mindful and loving care of something entrusted to us”—our bodies. Actually, our entire being—body, mind, and spirit.

An added level of beauty to the idea of stewarding emotional eating is that it takes into account the recurring nature of the beast: we’re not talking about blasting it out of existence but about honoring it as a message that may come back repeatedly when we stop listening to and honoring what our bodies/minds/spirits are asking of and for us.

We’re human: we’ll continue to be triggered, and we’ll keep feeling emotions—and if we learn to honor the message they’re sending rather than suppressing it, we can take mindful and loving care of what has been entrusted to us.

make the connection

If you’ve been trying without success to beat/control/conquer/manage/tackle your emotional eating, why not try a different approach and learn how to steward it?

May 30th is the deadline to apply for my Stewarding Emotional Eating group program, which starts June 1 and runs for 8 weeks with time off for good behavior over the 4th of July weekend. As always payment plans and prepay discounts are available!

Details and application link

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