Sorry to say, the answer is food.
Why? Food itself just “is”—it’s an inanimate substance that has no emotion of its own and, honestly, doesn’t care about what’s going on in your head or health. (It doesn’t dislike you, either—it just doesn’t care.) The problem is that we’re so invested in food: We think about it, welcome its comfort, and often fall into traps around how to make friends with it, or try to avoid some of it when we’re on a diet.
Yet we can’t ignore the fact that our bodies need food. The situation seems to be fraught with pitfalls.
As a health and wellness coach, I guide busy professionals and women over 40 to find their trimmest, most positively aligned and empowered selves. Often that requires a little investigation into what’s keeping these otherwise successful people from achieving their health goals—which, for so many, include diets and weight loss. (You, too?)
Often our discussion turns to cravings and those sneaky trigger substances—you know, those treats that magnetically pull us to eat, even though we know the snacking might not end well. Sprinkle in a few stressful situations that occurred during the day, and, voila, an unwanted eating event begins. Next comes that internal voice berating us for giving in yet again. The cycle then escalates because our favorite “bet you can’t eat just one” go-to yummies may seem even more irresistible once we’re caught up in the emotions of self-criticism, guilt, and remorse. We need comfort, and food is always there, ready and waiting.
Doesn’t it seem as if someone else is in charge of our mind and actions, especially at night or when we’re home alone, at the mercy of our habits—and we’re feeling emotions more strongly because we’re fatigued from the day and “decisioned-out”?
A slippery slope, indeed!
Through the years, I’ve turned to a time-tested solution to help my clients and patients put on the brakes. When the urge strikes to mindlessly eat, a quick self-assessment tool can help you recognize and break a negative eating cycle—or even prevent it from starting by helping you think ahead with some supportive action steps. Ready to take control of your eating? Just think HALT.
H-A-L-T stands for a question that starts with, “Could I be….”
It sounds a little obvious, but yes, real hunger could be what’s making you run to your refrigerator. Here’s how to tell.
Did you miss a meal earlier in the day, or are you trying to diet radically? Either way, chances are you do need some good fuel now. For optimal function, your body requires regular, healthy, balanced meals. But, if you’ve eaten in the last hour or so, perhaps some other feeling is masquerading as hunger. And, if 2 to 4 hours have gone by since your last meal, don’t simply grab an empty junk-food snack. Eat mindfully.
By the way, could you be thirsty? So often our bodies confuse hunger and thirst. Have a glass of water or herbal tea. It just might hit the spot.
Not sure? Try asking yourself, as I do, if you could have an apple instead. If that sounds great, by all means, dig into some crunchy, nourishing fruit or veggies. But if you answer no, then chances are, you’re not truly hungry. Proceed to “A” to continue your assessment.
Action step: Plan your next day’s meals so you never go more than 4 hours without giving your body good-quality fuel.
Grrr….are you angry, frustrated, or even just quietly annoyed? Maybe something happened at work and you can’t stop thinking about it, or you’re in the midst of an unresolved conflict with a family member. Perhaps a friend has let you down. Any of these common scenarios can send you looking for food to soothe raw feelings of injustice.
If this sounds familiar, then stop and recognize your emotion. Food won’t solve this kind of problem, sorry to say.
Action step: Plan to have a conversation with the person or party involved and tactfully verbalize your feelings. Too much, too soon? Then write a letter or email expressing yourself to the other person instead. (Remember, sending is optional.)
Do you feel a little sad, or even extremely blue, when you find yourself alone? Treating food as a companion is a common remedy. After all, who sees what you’re eating anyway? Even though this solution is a trap (and even though you know that), it’s all too easy to use food to soothe yourself when you’re on your own and unhappy about it.
The trouble is, loneliness can be hard to fix since it’s not always obvious. Sometimes we feel alone even while surrounded by other people. Maybe you see friends having meaningful connections and know yours don’t match. Maybe you’re even in a relationship yet feeling misunderstood. If you’re feeling drawn to food in these situations—or even just because you’re bored—recognize that you’re probably not hungry. (Remember the trick: Apple, anyone?) And food won’t help you find a real solution.
Action step: Make a plan to connect again with those you know—or even find new friends who are like-minded. Start with the activities you love. Yoga? Painting? Hiking? Clubs and classes are out there for almost any interest. Look for them—you’ll be glad you used your insights to move your life forward.
Studies have proven that a lack of sleep can lead to food choices that are less than rational. When we’re tired, we often reach for sugary foods (e.g., muffins or candy) to quickly pump up energy. But the problem is that these high-caloric foods are usually packed with simple carbs and lacking in other nutrients. Unlike smart snacks that contain energizing protein and satiating fiber, those sugary choices will send your blood sugar soaring and then plunging again, requiring you to refuel in a very short time. That pattern eventually translates to added weight and stress—all without providing any of what you really need: rest.
Action step: It’s time for R & R. Give yourself a break to let your body recover and repair. Chances are, your eating patterns and choices will begin to normalize almost as soon as you have some much-needed rest.
So, are you hungry, angry, lonely, tired? That’s the HALT test. The challenge, of course, is that when you’re faced with a stressor and a trigger, you only have a few seconds, literally, to decide what action to take. After that, it’s anyone’s guess whether that trigger will be just the first in a series of binge foods.
Eating when we’re stressed is the negative reaction. But you can, instead, meet stress with decisive, effective action that doesn’t include snacking for the wrong reason. Here’s my suggestion: Grab a pen and paper and make a HALT sign to post on your refrigerator as a reminder that you have the power to make an important choice for yourself.
Now consider some other proactive action steps. First, assert your resolve by removing those tempting foods that are triggers for you from your home or at least from your sight. Your next action step should address your emotional and mental needs. Create a “menu of activities” that give you sound, quick choices for dealing with stress, like going for a walk, calling a friend, or picking up a hobby. Finally, take a refreshing drink of water as you quickly decide to “halt” the habit of emotional eating. Ahh—awareness, self-care, and positive forward thinking. Now that’s an energizing, effective eating plan to fuel your fullest, most vibrant life!