When I was a new lawyer, I would get very stressed out and overwhelmed by my workload. My reaction would be to eat the peanut M&Ms the secretaries kept in the candy bowl. Like maybe almost the whole bowlful. Over time, I developed a habit of eating chocolate in response to stress at work. After all, didn’t I deserve it because I was busting my butt? In four years at the law firm, I gained 40 pounds!
After leaving the firm, I continued this habit, and I continued to gain weight.
It worked like this: whenever I was stressed out about my work, I would have a thought that would say, “go get something to eat. You’ll feel better.” Or something like that. It didn’t matter whether I was hungry. I would treat my stress with food.
Did this help me get my work done? Of course not! Did it make me feel better? Only as long as the food was in my mouth. Once it was in my belly and then in storage throughout my body, I still needed to get my work done. All it really did was make me fat.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve rewarded yourself with food, too. Maybe you’ve rewarded your kids with food. And who knows who else?
What kind of a reward is that, anyway? I’ve got too much work, so why not abuse my body with food? Because that is what we do when we eat when we aren’t hungry. Or when we don’t stop eating when our body has had enough.
Abusing your body with food doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means that instead of examining what is bothering you, you eat to avoid your emotions. Grabbing food is easy and it is almost always available. I don’t know a single overweight person who didn’t get that way without eating for emotional reasons.
But it really doesn’t solve the problem. As I’ve said before, if hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need to learn a different way of dealing with your emotions because as long as food is your drug of choice, you will struggle with your weight.
Here is how I broke my habit.
I started noticing my thoughts. I became the observer of these thoughts. Whenever I felt the urge to eat when I wasn’t hungry, I would listen for that little voice inside my head and notice what I was thinking.
Maybe it started with “how the hell am I ever going to get all this done?” which usually elicited the emotion of “overwhelm” or “stress.” But it was just an emotion! It wasn’t hunger!
It was usually followed by that “go get something to eat” thought. That thought did nothing to stop me from feeling overwhelmed, it just distracted me for the amount of time it took to eat two handfuls of Trader Joe’s chocolate covered almonds.
So, instead of eating, when the thought arose, I would notice it and replace it with a better thought, such as “Eating when I’m not hungry is not going to help me get my work done.” This was a fact, unlike “go eat something, you’ll feel better,” which was a lie. Then I would notice the vaguely uncomfortable emotions arising from having to work hard, and they were never all that bad. They would pass in just a few minutes. I’d get more work done because I wasn’t wasting my time eating, so this actually helped me eliminate those feelings of overwhelm.
I practiced noticing my thoughts and changing them over and over. Over time, it got easier and easier to avoid eating when I wasn’t hungry. Then one day the habit was gone. Now I rarely get the thought to eat when I’m experiencing work stress.
In changing our eating habits, the process is more important than the goal. I’ll talk about that next week. In the meantime, start practicing looking at your thoughts before you eat. Are they serving you? Can you have a better thought that will help you achieve your goal of not overeating?
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