Do you struggle with cravings or night time snacking?
Are you an emotional eater?
Is it getting in the way of your goals for your nutrition or physique?
You are not alone!
Cravings, night time eating, and emotional eating are, without a doubt, THE most frequently named of all the struggles people have when it comes to not being able to reach or sustain their nutrition or physique goals. Some people look to have salty, crunchy snacks (me) while others crave sweets, chocolate, or baked goods. Some folks have a glass or two of wine each night while others eat in front of the T.V. or computer. While cravings, night time eating, and emotional eating may play out in a multitude of different ways from person to person, the roots of the behavior and the prescription for changing it are tightly connected. The commonality that these behaviors have is that a habit or “brain loop” (as I like to call it) has been established. Our brains are wired to look for commonalities and to form loops, patterns, and associations. Knowing that is the basis for how you can elicit change when it comes to behaviors that are no longer serving you. The next part of the equation is to realize that there are ‘triggers’ that cue the ‘action’ or signal the brain loop that brings you to find yourself opening up that package of crunchy, salty, goodness. Finally, there is the ‘reward’ or the response that you receive that solidifies the loop and seals the deal for making this behavior become automatic.
Let’s first focus on ‘triggers’ as they are the precursor to the habit or behavior that you are looking to change. Triggers come in so many forms and instances that I find it extremely fascinating to identify them for the sake of studying the psychology of behavior and change when it comes to eating. They are truly so persuasive that once you start to realize this, you have a whole new level of respect for them. Triggers can come from smells, visual stimuli, and events all because of what our minds have come to “associate” with these. Many of them are emotional in nature.
Consider the smell of coffee and the power that it holds as a trigger. What words come to mind when you think of the smell of coffee? We have come to associate that smell with ideas and thoughts such as comfort, awakening, productivity, motivation, break time, relaxation, and the list goes on. The wonderful smell of coffee is all that it takes to extract a different state of mind. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have capitalized on this. Their brands and logos have become the visual stimuli as well! Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts now being in multiple locations in one mall or shopping center, in Target, in airports, gas stations, and convenience stores across America shows the power of associations that occur at the mere smell or sighting of coffee and the strong response we have as a result of the associations we have with it! It is genius how Dunkin and Starbucks have successfully monetized on our associations with coffee!!
There are also social and emotional triggers that elicit strong responses within us when it comes to food. Take Football Sunday for example. What do you think of? Beer, wings, chips, sandwiches, snacking, cheering, being with friends, anticipation, excitement. This idea ‘stimuli’ brings about a huge array of responses in many people. Think about when the season ends. Does it make you feel lonely? Do you find Sundays to be a day when you tend to look for food for comfort? What about holidays? Thanksgiving and the smell of turkey in the oven brings immediate emotional response for me. It makes me both happy and sad. It makes me happy about the memories I have surrounding this holiday but it also makes me feel sad and lonely when I can no longer be with the people who were a huge part of that memory for me. Holidays are huge triggers for people and while they don’t happen every single day like night time eating does, they are an interesting way to look at how our brains form loops around foods and how strongly those loops are tied to emotions.
Triggers come in and the associations that we have formed elicit our canned response. The brain scans for a response that provides relief and seeks to repeat acts that elicit a reward which usually comes in the form of relief. All humans share the need to be comforted and the need to be social. When these needs are not met externally by being with a person or people who can provide us with comfort, we turn to food or other substances. Negative emotions or feelings like anxiety and loneliness bring about a stronger need for a response than positive emotions do which is why people don’t need to eat as much when they first fall in love or are extremely happy about something new and exciting. People turn to food more often when they are feeling negatively, hence the emotional eating and night time eating. That is why I refer my clients to the acronym ALBA (like Jessica Alba- ha ha) when it comes to identifying triggers. A=anxiety, L=Loneliness, B=Boredom, and the second A= “actual hunger.” Aside from eating because we are “actually hungry,” when we find ourselves turning to food, it is a good idea to figure out why. This acronym is a great way to get to the root cause of the issue which may result in a formed habit or brain loop. When we are experiencing anxiety, we turn to food for comfort. This stems from our early roots as an infant when our caregivers gave us a nipple from breast or bottle and held us in their arms to soothe us. When we are lonely, we turn to food. Humans are social creatures and when feeling lonely, we yearn to be comforted. We also have learned to eat for stimulation when we are bored. As soon as we were old enough to go to a cabinet and open it up or go to a store and purchase our own food, this behavior took root as well.
Night time eating is usually a habit formed as a response to anxiety and/or boredom. When we come home from a highly stimulating day of work, school, or whatever, we look to “wind down” or de-compress. This is typically accomplished with food or alcohol or both. People don’t usually associate the feeling of anxiousness with the act of coming home at the end of the day but, in actuality, if you weren’t “wound up” from the events of the day in the first place then you wouldn’t need to “wind down”….or “wine down” as I like to say ; ) Our worlds are very busy and we are multi-tasking and tending to many things at once and while it may seem normal to most of us it doesn’t mean that our brain isn’t longing for calmness and quiet. Eating has become our brain’s quickest most accessible loop to obtaining that.
So how do you change the behavior? How do you break the loop? You first recognize the need and the trigger and then meet that need with a different response so that a new loop is formed and by doing this over time, a new trigger will be formed as well. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.
Changing some behaviors will take more time and more willpower than others. The stronger the emotions and the longer the association has existed, the more time it will take and subsequently, the more will power. Remember how long it took for you to be completely neutral when hearing that song that made you think of your ex? While that may be more extreme than giving up the cheetoes while watching Grey’s Anatomy, you get my perspective.
So what new loops can you form to replace emotional eating and night time eating?
For night time eating, there are many different approaches you can take depending on the trigger or the cue. For instance, if eating while watching a show on the tube or computer is the cue, you can stop watching the show, or watch it in a different room, or watch it standing up, or watch it while in the bathtub. If eating or drinking wine at night is signaled not by the TV show but more by the “need to un-wind” you could, call a friend, go for a walk, join a Yoga class, take a bath, read a book, take up meditation, sculpting, or some other way to “quiet your mind.”
My most difficult time comes on Sundays. I personally associate Sundays with get togethers with family and friends, band practice, or Football Sundays and being around Italians who make “sauce” or “gravy” every Sunday. I often feel lonely on Sundays now that I don’t live near my friends and family and don’t have weekly band practice anymore. I usually tend to seek comfort through food on Sundays and want to make a pot of sauce or grab a comfort meal to make me feel better. What else do I do? What actions do I take? Depending on how strong the loneliness feels on any given Sunday, I usually do a rigorous workout and sometimes that alone helps change my state of mind to a more empowered feeling from the endorphins that it brings. If that doesn’t help, I often clean on Sundays to keep my body moving and keep my mind occupied and the act of “nesting” brings me a great deal of comfort. I also do some meal prep for the week and I make a “new form of comfort food” on Sundays that involves buckling down in the kitchen and cooking a more involved meal like a hearty soup or sometimes even a pot of sauce and meatballs. I will also plan a movie night and get excited about the movie that my husband and I will watch together. Most importantly, I am aware of the trigger and I know when it comes, and why it comes and I buckle down for it and navigate my way through it because I also know that it will pass.
If you can ride it out, you usually can pass through it successfully and the more often you can do that, the easier it becomes. Recognizing triggers and the response you take and changing the response while still signaling a feeling of reward will hopefully bring you to a new “brain loop” at best and at the very least will reduce the level of impact the behavior has over you as far as how deep you go down the rabbit hole so that eventually you can kick the habit altogether.