Do you feel like you are constantly eating, but you aren’t exactly sure why? Do you continue to eat until your body feels uncomfortably full? Are you eating to deal with the negative emotions that you have about all the excessive eating you have been doing?
For most people, overeating is the result of using food to try to cope with challenging feelings. Additionally, some people overeat because their medication interferes with serotonin, the brain’s internal “I’ve had enough to eat” switch. Others simply overeat because they are in the habit of overeating. Whatever the reason, we want you to know that there is hope. There are many effective strategies to prevent overeating. Before we discuss ways to divert your attention from food, we must first dig into “why” you feel the urge to eat excessively.
Consider Why You Want To Eat
For clients prone to engaging in harmful behaviors, mental health professionals frequently use the acronym H.A.L.T., a tool to help clients take a pause to reflect on what feelings are leading to those negative behaviors. H.A.L.T. stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired.
When you find yourself overeating, you might ask yourself if:
- You are actually hungry (has it been hours since your last meal or snack?)
- You feel angry about something
- You are feeling lonely or
- You need some rest
If you are feeling hungry because it’s time for dinner or you haven’t had a snack in several hours, by all means, eat! Food is an essential human need. In fact, certain types of snacks are scientifically proven to help us feel satiated and also help to improve our moods. About one hour before your next meal or in the late afternoon when you are starting to feel tired or irritable, enjoy a snack that contains 25-30 grams of carbs, less than 4 grams of protein and less than 3 grams of fat (low fat popcorn, cereal without milk, a nutrigrain bar, etc). Wait 20-30 minutes and notice how your mood is elevated and your cravings are reduced.
If you are not physically hungry, consider whether you are angry, lonely, tired or are struggling with another difficult emotion. Recognize that it’s perfectly normal to have cravings when you are accustomed to coping with food, but that there are better ways out there to help you through challenging feelings.
Here are 10 alternatives to eating when you aren’t actually hungry:
- Practice tolerating difficult emotions. Sometimes we avoid our feelings because we are scared that we will fall apart if we face them or feel them deeply. However, running from challenging emotions puts us at a distinct disadvantage. Life isn’t just about feeling the positive, comfortable feelings. The goal is to accept life on life’s terms, the good and the bad, or as Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as “The Full Catastrophe.” The next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion, try taking a few deep breaths and simply sitting with it, non-judgmentally observing what is transpiring inside of you. By doing so, you will notice that feelings come and go. No negative emotion will last forever. This exercise can help increase your tolerance for difficult emotions.
- Take a walk. If you are tired, you may think it’s illogical to exert extra energy by walking. However, exercise actually helps to increase energy and improve mood, so not only will you burn some calories, but you’ll feel more energetic and upbeat. Taking a walk with a friend or a pet is even better.
- Listen to and/or dance to your favorite music. If you want to get out of your head, try listening to music that makes you want to dance or reminds you of happy times in your life. Like walking, dancing will help lift your spirits and your energy levels.
- Connect with a friend. Spend time with someone who accepts you for who you are, no matter what condition you are in. Vent about your negative emotions or keep it simple and just enjoy each other’s company.
- Do something nice for someone else. One way to get out of your own head is to help someone who is in need. Even something as simple as reaching out and calling a friend who is going through a difficult time can make you and the friend feel better.
- Take a mini nap. Sometimes just lying down (or sitting, if needed) and closing your eyes for 10-15 minutes can feel just as restful as if you’ve taken a two-hour nap. This can benefit everyone, but is especially effective for those who are craving food because they are tired.
- Read a book or catch up on your favorite show. Treat yourself to content that is compelling enough to keep your attention and enjoy!
- Meditate. There are many great apps out there that make meditation readily accessible and as simple as can be.
- Get creative. Paint, draw, sculpt, play music, write or do whatever other creative activity that comes to mind.
- Write down (or type) your feelings. This is especially helpful if you are feeling angry. Take 15 minutes to write down everything you feel and don’t worry if you veer off topic. Go where your mind takes you. You’ll likely find that you feel better after getting everything out of your head and onto paper.
We hope these tips help and we’d love to hear any other ideas that work for you to prevent overeating.