Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Sure, we all do to some degree! Food is one of the necessities of life, but it’s also a source of comfort for those times when you are feeling sad, stressed, homesick, angry, or [insert emotion here]. This occasional indulgence usually isn’t a problem, but when you start responding to every emotion with food it becomes a problem in more than one way. Can you say weight gain and feelings of zero willpower? You did just eat that entire bag of Lay’s Potato Chips after all!
It’s time to stop beating yourself up. So you slipped up and let your stress get the best of you – so what? Forgive yourself and move on. But what if it happens again, you ask? What are you supposed to do the next time you are struck with a bout of good old-fashioned homesickness?
Follow the three steps below to learn how not to eat your feelings.
Step 1: Ask yourself: “Am I hungry?”
Sounds like a silly question doesn’t it? You have to be able to identify if you are eating in response to true hunger (a grumbling stomach) or “head hunger” (emotional eating). Sometimes it’s not that easy to figure out. If you’re having difficulty making the determination, imagine your stomach is like the tank of gas in your car. A gas tank goes from “empty” to “full” right? Now, picture your stomach with a gauge connected to it that moves from empty to full as you feed it. Better yet, pretend it goes from 0 to 10. See the scale below to help you visualize this concept:
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
At level “0” or “empty,” you are coasting on fumes. Your stomach is the size of your fist. You have never been hungrier and you lack any ounce of mental or physical energy. Read a chapter for class? Forget that! You can’t even focus on the television. You need food fast!
Level “5” is “halfway,” or the mid point on your gas gauge. You don’t feel hungry but you also don’t feel full. This is considered “satisfied.” I’ve never conducted an official study, but I would be willing to bet money that most college students eat beyond the level of “satisfied” and don’t even realize it. Physical energy and mental focus are at their peak at this level, so it’s important to understand what this feels like and strive for it. Could you eat more at a level 5? You bet! In fact it’s pretty easy to do because you still have room left in your stomach and aren’t feeling uncomfortable yet.
At level “10” or “stuffed,” you are “topped off” and couldn’t eat another bite if someone paid you. Your stomach at this level is about the size of a gallon of milk (really!). Another way to describe level “10” is “Thanksgiving Day full.” Read a chapter for class? Forget that! You can’t even keep your eyes open. You need to take a nap!
True hunger is any number below a level “5.”
Step 2: Pick your number
If you had to assign a number to your hunger or fullness, what would it be? Are you almost satisfied (a level “4”)? Are you feeling a bit uncomfortable (a level “7”)? This step is very important because it forces you to stop and take notice when you’re turning towards food instead of tackling the unpleasant emotion before you, whatever it might be.
Step 3: Find out what’s eating you
If you find yourself eating at any level above a 5 or 6, you need to determine why you are doing it. To figure this out, keep a journal for 1 week and record the following information:
1. Everything you eat and drink.
2. Using the scale above, assign a number to your hunger/fullness before and after you eat.
3. Do you observe a pattern where you are eating even though you aren’t hungry? If so, identify the reason and write it down. Did something happen, causing you to turn to food for comfort? Did you do poorly on an exam? Are you stressed out about something? Are you procrastinating writing that paper? Are you sad or lonely? Even if you’re not sure what the reason is, write something down!
Once you identify the source, it’s time to cope. Find another outlet. Sit with your feelings and really experience them. You may still find yourself turning towards food for comfort even after you sit and experience your feelings. That’s OK. It’s what you are used to, so it’s going to take some time to break. An effective strategy is to develop a new method of coping. For example: if you eat when you are stressed, stop and do 10 jumping jacks or push-ups. Nothing tackles stress better than exercise. It doesn’t have to require a trip to the student recreation center. Think quick and effective.
The bottom line: Eating in response to your emotions is taxing on the brain. It’s an energy draining habit because you never get to the root of the problem. Food never solves what’s really bugging you – ever! As uncomfortable as it may seem, the next time you find yourself battling the stresses of college life, instead of digging into that bag of M&M’s, start practicing your new coping skills. The more you practice them, the sooner they will become your new habit.
Be patient with yourself and remember: You can do this!
Melanie Jatsek is a speaker, author and registered dietitian who teaches college students how to eat to look better, feel better, think better and stress less! Send her an email at [email protected] or connect with her on her new Facebook page for college students: “The Healthy Campus Project.”