Emotional eating tends to be a habit, and like any habit can be broken. It may be difficult, especially if you've been doing it for a long time, but it is possible.
Weight problems often run in families, so the easiest way to tackle emotional eating is together as a family. It's unrealistic to expect an overweight child to stop binge-eating snacks and junk food when other people in the household are doing it.
Here are four tips to help you and your family to curb emotional eating.
1. Set up a healthy home environment
Start with the obvious: If there is no junk food in the house, you can't binge on it. Instead, keep unprocessed, low-calorie, low-fat foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables and unbuttered popcorn available for munching.
Kids learn by watching adults, so parents need to set the example and create a healthier food environment.
Before going grocery shopping, heading to a restaurant, or calling for pizza delivery, take a breather, go for a walk, and wait until your emotions are in check.
2. Identify what's triggering emotional eating
The next time you reach for comfort food, ask yourself, "Why do I want this candy bar? Am I really hungry?" If not, try to identify what emotions you are feeling. Are you stressed, angry, bored, scared, sad, lonely? Keeping a food diary - a written record of what, how much, and when you eat - may help you see patterns in your binge eating and connections between mood and food.
Talk with your overweight children to find out what's going on in their personal lives. Ask about school, friends, and general attitudes. Do they have a positive or negative view about the way life is going? Being aware of the underlying social and emotional issues will help you guide them to make better choices.
Sometimes, an outside perspective allows an "aha!" moment that lights the path for change. If you're having trouble controlling your emotional eating, don't be afraid to seek the help of a mental health professional. Although professional counselling or psychotherapy might not be comfortable for elementary school children, it can help you or older kids figure out what's motivating emotional eating and offer help for eating disorders.
3. Find satisfying alternatives
Once you figure out why food makes you feel better, you can come up with alternative behaviors that can help you cope instead of emotional eating. Frustrated because you have no control over circumstances? Go for a walk on a path you choose. Hurt by a co-worker's mean comments? Take it out on a punching bag, or make a plan for how you're going to talk it out. Bored? Distract yourself by calling a friend or surfing the internet.
Denying yourself all treats can lead to cravings and binge eating. Instead, allow yourself to have your favourite foods occasionally and in smaller portions. Limit the amount of chips or sweets by putting a few in a small bowl instead of mindlessly eating them out of the bag.
Keeping the emphasis on fun and feeling good can make new, healthier habits easier to adopt. A study in a British health journal showed that teenagers were more likely to take a walk when told that it would make them feel good than when told it was the healthy thing to do. So when you're making alternative plans, choose something you'll view as pleasurable such as a quick bike ride or brisk walk after dinner, or an after-school game of hide-and-go-seek rather than a chore or punishment.
4. Celebrate success
Focus on the positive changes you are making, one step at a time. You'll get better results with positive encouragement than with harsh criticism. For example, praise your child when he takes only one cookie out of the box instead of a handful.
Changing an emotional eating habit is a process. Some backsliding will happen, so acknowledge when it does, and use that to help you plan how you'll deal with a similar situation in the future.
When you work together as a family to develop better eating habits, the support you can offer each other and the rewards you enjoy can be priceless.
Many readers are struggling with the same issues, and I frequently get
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