Judy and I recently walked over 300 km of the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. After reading numerous blogs about people’s experiences walking the trail it became clear to us that we would need to alter our diet somewhat for the 3 weeks we were to be there. Many people we knew had the reaction that a dietary change would be necessary since we would be walking 20-25 km a day and we’d need more calories – much more than our typical lifestyle requires of us. But the changes we introduced didn’t happen for nutritional reasons at all. In fact, we believe we would have felt better nourished (in body, mind, and spirit) had we been able to maintain our regular lifestyle diet (vegan, highly raw, gluten free, refined sugar free, & caffeine free). The reality was that the region we were traveling through in Spain is a heavily meat based culture. And there was the added complication of a pilgrim’s daily schedule in relation to that of locals – we needed to eat around 7 pm in order to make it back to the hostel before it closed for the night to get a good night’s sleep before our necessary early rise the next morning. Typically restaurants closed their kitchens during afternoon siesta time and didn’t open again for meals until 9 pm. Since this region was used to accommodating pilgrims there were always a couple of places open at the needed times, but this did mean that our food choices were even more limited.
Though we weren’t getting the nutrition we were accustomed to, nor in the form we love, we were incredibly grateful for what we were able to find!! As we tended to be well prepared with snacks and trail meals, we were rarely physically hungry, even after 8 hour walking days. That said, we did experience cravings and times where we were eating for emotional reasons (like all those easy to find early morning pastry jaunts!) It was pretty clear we turned to food when we were feeling out of our comfort zones, or a bit homesick, or just a little unbalanced in one way or another. Though unusual in most circumstances, our emotional eating on the Camino often found us wishing for raw, live, nutritious foods (i.e. our regular diets). Oh how we basked in our almost daily fresh squeezed orange juice J. And one day we miraculously came upon a green juice bar, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We were in awe of our find and after each consuming a large green juice, we hung out at the little round cafe table for over half an hour just watching the people who, like us, had been attracted to such an odd find. (And though we were hopeful and certainly believe in miracles, we never came across another one again in our 3 weeks!)
Emotional eating patterns aren’t, however, solely relegated to our away from home adventures. They happen in our day to day lives too and it’s not always as easy to identify what seems to be triggering the behavior. So, how do we know if we’re engaged in emotional eating? Here are a few clues that we’ve identified in ourselves (that we believe may apply to others) to keep an eye out for:
- Emotional eating tends to come on suddenly, feels urgent, and we feel pretty powerless in the face of it. This response is quite different from what we feel when we are actually physically hungry. The feeling of genuine hunger tends to be more gradual in its onset. (And how often are middle class people in North America actually really hungry? We might be late for a meal, but…)
- Emotional eating is often mindless — Before we know it, we’ve made and eaten the entire bowl of popcorn – and sometimes even that doesn’t seem to fill us up!
- It is interesting to observe that for us our cravings revolve around specific comfort foods, and these are rarely nutritionally sound. This feels like an emotional or psychological “need” or “hunger”. When we are physically hungry, everything we can find sounds good. We’re especially fond of sugar snap peas or anything else straight from our garden (and so is our Corgi, Shanti!) but we don’t crave these foods – we just love them.
- Emotional eating often leads to regret or guilt. Physical hunger simply gives our body what it needs. But with emotional hunger you know deep down that you are not satisfying a nutritional need. After one of us has an emotional eating bout we tend to look at the other and say something like, “Shoot, I knew I really didn’t need that.”
Here are a few tips (tested, tried, and true to our experiences J) to support yourself in finding other ways to work with your emotional eating:
- Grow in awareness of your deeper feelings and learn to accept them – no matter what they are. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable! In fact, it’s better to feel the feelings than to suppress them. Feel it, be curious about it, let it run through you, and then let it go. If you can prevent yourself from hooking into a story around what brought up the emotions, you’ll likely notice that even difficult feelings are often fleeting and can lose their power.
- Find satisfying alternatives — If you can catch yourself before grabbing the bag of chips, try to calm your mind using other techniques. Talk to a friend, massage your feet (bliss!), sip a warm cup of herbal tea, take a hot bath, go for a walk, or use some breathing techniques. Different emotions might call for different replacements and whatever you choose, make sure it’s pleasurable. The more of these you have at hand, the easier it will be to re-pattern your emotional eating habits.
- Be gentle with yourself — It doesn’t serve to feel guilt or regret. We are human. We fall. We get up, dust ourselves off, gently pat ourselves on the back, open our hearts, and move on.
Above all, remember that becoming aware of and changing emotional habits is a process, and takes time.