Prone to stopping at 16 Handles after a fight with your significant other? So are most of us, says Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Midtown Manhattan.
In her new book, End Emotional Eating, Dr. Taitz (who’s also a SoulCycle devotee and a yogi) uses approachable psychological therapies to help people develop healthier relationships with food. And she busts a few myths along the way.
You may snack at work because you’re stressed or bored, binge at night because you’re lonely, or deny yourself food because you feel rejected and unloved after a bad date. These are situations where you’re not hungry; you’re managing feelings with food, she explains.
The (temporary) anxiety relief eating brings may not seem that bad to most of us, but “the problem is that it gets in the way of listening to our emotions,” says Dr. Taitz. “Our emotions provide us with such meaningful information, and if we avoid them, we lose that information.”
So that sinking feeling at work, for example, may be telling you you’re unhappy with your career choice and should consider other options—and if you crush it with a croissant, it will be back before the butter leaves your bloodstream.
Here are three of Dr. Taitz’s strategies for ending emotional eating habits and creating healthier ones:
1. Apply mindfulness to your meals. Mindfulness is a Buddhist and yogic concept, but it’s also the basis of many of modern approaches to psychology. What it really means is being fully present in the moment, including when you eat. This will help you recognize when you’re truly physically hungry and when emotions are taking over.
2. Observe and describe your feelings. When you’re in a situation that often leads to emotional eating, “take a step back and get a sense of the facts,” says Dr. Taitz. Research has shown that identifying and describing emotions you’re experiencing is the first step towards regulating them. Dr. Taitz recommends using a strategy called SIFT or Situation-Interpretation-Feeling-Tendency. That could look like this: “Guy doesn’t call. That means he doesn’t like me. I feel rejected and sad. Go eat ice cream.” If you recognize the feelings and patterns, she says, you can begin to work on the tendencies that result. “You can’t manage your emotions intelligently without knowing what you’re feeling.”
3. Have a better plan in place. “Find better, healthier ways to self-soothe,” says Dr. Taitz. She suggests creating a slideshow of pictures of friends and family (puppies?) on your iPhone or an upbeat or relaxing playlist for moments when you’re feeling stressed or sad. Research says that listening to music can reduce agitation, and photos of loved ones can replace sadness with a feeling of connectedness.
If you can clear emotions off your dinner plate, says Dr. Taitz, the benefits will be huge. “Over time, weakening the link between food and short-term emotional consolation can allow you to gradually cultivate healthier and more sustaining ways of responding to your emotions.” —Lisa Elaine Held