If you follow change.creates.change on social media, you may have seen posts about something called HALT. It’s a tool used to recognize our feelings and basic needs1. When we feel an urge to eat, we first ask ourselves if we are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. We can identify which of these basic needs is most prominent at any given time, and then we’ll know how to best care for ourselves in that moment. When our body is hungry, we can feed it. If we feel angry, we can set boundaries. If we are lonely, we can seek comfort. And if we’re tired? We can rest.
This tool can be useful in helping us to pay closer attention to our feelings. As a result, it can also help break the cycle of emotional eating. Emotional eating is eating in response to feelings instead of hunger. It can when someone eats out of boredom, loneliness, sadness or stress. It can also be a response to positive feelings, like celebrating a win with food. We all have experiences with emotional eating.
There are many reasons why a person may engage in emotional eating. When faced with negative emotions, we may turn to food because it provides a feeling of comfort. When we eat palatable foods, hormones are released in the body, stimulating feelings of satisfaction. This temporary pleasurable feeling may be sought out again and again every time negative emotions hit, creating a cycle that’s tough to break. Alternately, food may simply offer an escape or a distraction from negative feelings3. When food is used as an escape from difficult emotions, it temporarily diverts our attention from our troubles. However, after eating, we find our circumstances have not changed, and we may have added guilt if we feel we have overeaten or negatively impacted our health.
There is hope in breaking this cycle, and we want to suggest a few small steps you can take.
First, it can be helpful to identify your emotional eating triggers2. Do you tend to eat to fit in with others around you? Do you find yourself eating in response to stress, boredom, fatigue, depression, anxiety, or loneliness? Do situations like passing by a bakery, watching TV or going to a sporting event affect your eating habits? How about physical cues, like headaches? Take a moment to reflect on what can lead to emotional eating in your own life.
Once you’ve identified those emotional eating triggers, you can begin to create a plan to adopt new ways of coping with these situations or feelings. Below is a list of a few suggestions2. Not all of them will apply to your unique challenges, but they may help you brainstorm ways to honour your feelings without food.
- Express your feelings to another person
- Reach out for a hug
- Take a nap
- Breathe deeply
- Allow yourself to cry
- Tear up an old phonebook or newspaper
- Get out of the house – go for a walk or try your hand at gardening
- Listen to music that you enjoy (or play an instrument!)
- Call a friend or meet up in person
- Read a book or intently watch a movie
- Take a drive (if safe to do so)
- Write down your feelings or start a journal
- Try yoga, meditation or deep breathing
- Get a massage
- Paint your nails, do your hair or give yourself a facial
- Do something artsy! Draw, paint, colour or write a poem
- Take a shower or bath
- Craft! Knit, crochet, cross-stitch, scrapbook, etc.
- Pick up fresh flowers for your home or workspace
- Listen to a comedy podcast or video
- Play with your pet
- Try something new –take a class in something you might enjoy!3
It takes time to change habits, so we all need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. And remember: emotions are not a bad thing! The best way to honour your feelings is to feel them, not temporarily numb them with food. But sometimes, when times are tough, food is the only way to feel comforted and that’s okay. Food is meant to nourish to body as well as nourish the soul.
- HALT: The Dangers of Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness. (2018). In Bradford Health Services. Retrieved from https://bradfordhealth.com/halt-hunger-anger-loneliness-tiredness/.
- Dryden-Edwards, R. (2017). Emotional eating. In MedicineNet. Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/article.htm.
- Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating (3rd ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.