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Emotional Eating, Avoiding Conditioning and Will Power

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Emotional Eating

Quite a few of us eat when we’re upset, angry and sad, among other emotional states. This happens because we’re conditioned to derive emotional comfort from food, due to deeply embedded childhood experiences, as well as years of reinforcement as adults. Please see The Causes of Cravings for more information on this.

For the purposes of this article, we need to become aware of our compulsive eating patterns, or urges to do so, including those caused by emotions.

  • When do we binge eat? Do we eat at specific times during the day, week or month? Do we we eat after predictable periods of time have elapsed?
  • Why do we binge eat? Do we eat because a certain amount of time has passed since we last ate? Do we eat because we’re upset or otherwise in an emotional state? Do we eat because we’re bored?
  • What do we binge eat? Do we head for traditional sweets like burfis and jalebis? Do we eat packaged sweets such as chocolates or candies? Do we crave desserts like doughnuts, cakes and muffins or do we look for floury sweets like biscuits? Are our tastes towards fried savouries like samosas or bread pakodas or do we prefer packaged savouries like potato chips? Do we immediately pick up the phone and order fast foods when the urge hits us? What do we eat?

Note all of this; make a log in a notebook or your phone if you wish, and keep this activity going for a month or more. Most of us will see a distinct pattern emerging. This is the beginning of building awareness of our emotional eating patterns, tendencies and preferences during those times. Your log will be a positive step forward in understanding and curbing emotional eating, by using the next two steps – Avoiding Conditioning, and Will Power.

Avoiding Conditioning

When we’re in certain emotional presets, such as when upset or sad, we automatically turn towards certain foods, as your emotional eating logs will illustrate over time. Additionally, certain foods cause us to eat in certain ways. For example, when I drink coffee with milk, I must have sugar, but with coffee without milk, I’m alright without sugar. Similarly, when served a thali with dal, sabzi, raita and salad, we must have rice or rotis, carbs we usually need to eat less of.

How do we avoid all of this? I use three methods to address my own conditioning.

  1. No Stock: Stop buying the things you binge eat. It’s alright if there are no snacks in the house when guests visit. Your health is more important. Or ask other family members to hide and never reveal the location of those items, reserving them for the use of other family members and guests.

    We do buy snacks from time to time, but they enter our home as occasional treats and never as items that are regularly stocked. I had a tendency to order from any number of online food ordering apps when I felt the urge to binge eat or when I was too lazy to cook. All those apps have been uninstalled.

    The nutritional quality of foods in our home has greatly increased as a consequence, plus when I want to binge eat, there’s nothing to do so with.
  2. Re-Format: If a certain format of foods causes binge eating, such as choley causing a craving for rice or bhature, change the format.

    Boil the choley and mix it with your favourite salad vegetables, drenching it with your preferred spices and therefore eating it in a manner that doesn’t cause a mental co-relation with accompaniments you want to avoid. Work with dals and other foods similarly.

    There’s a wealth of formats available worldwide and this kind of re-formatting of food will avoid triggering conditioned responses.
  3. Re-Condition: Over time, we need re-condition ourselves to detach ourselves from the burden of conditioned responses. Set a mental precedent by eating a bowl of dal by itself or a bowl of choley on its own. Have just a large portion of sabzi as a meal. Eat both dal and sabzi together after a while, without anything else. Do these exercises with your food, first every once in a while and then more and more often. Each time you do so you’re setting a mental precedent, that it is indeed possible and enjoyable to eat a meal of dal, sabzi and raita without rotis and rice, that it is possible enjoy a portion of choley without a bhatura and so on.

I suggest following the above three methods in order of sequence – first eliminate stock, then re-format and then along with re-formatted meals, begin your re-conditioning. Over a period of three to six months, a combination of all three methods will help reduce our conditioned eating responses. Soon, we won’t need the first (not stocking those foods), as desire for them will reduce over time.

What is Will Power?

I’ve been asked this question quite a few times in response to my longer fasts that are between 24 and 72 hours, “How do I get that kind of will power?”

Will power in this context can be divided into the following components:

  1. Knowledge of the Self: Increased self awareness helps us become conscious of our previously unconscious tendencies such as when we tend to break our fasts and what causes us to do so. Is it the aroma of food, is it the sight of food, is it the thought of food, is it boredom or could it be the sight of other people eating? Do we break our fasts when others pressurise us to do so? Do we stop fasting when entering a social gathering to avoid answering questions?

    As we increase our self awareness and our knowledge of ourselves, the likelihood of breaking our fasts prematurely reduces proportionately.
  2. Knowledge of the Science: What happens when we eat carbs and fats and protein? How are they metabolised in the body? How does the accumulation of regular fat happen? What contributes to ectopic fat? How does the liver accumulate fat? When does sugar begin to be excreted via urine?

    When we understand all of the above and more, each time we reach for a morsel of forbidden food, we’ll visualise how it will be processed in the body and its effects on our bodies. Over time, this visualisation and understanding of the outcomes of our eating the wrong foods will encourage us towards healthier eating practices.
  3. Goals and Paths: Setting a goal is very important. Why are we fasting or trying to eat healthier than we did? Do we want to be healthier overall? Do we want to fit into trendier clothes? Do we want to see our toes? (I know I did) Do we want to improve our blood sugar control? Do we want to set an example for our children? Do we want some relief from high blood pressure? What is it we’re trying to achieve? Set a goal.

    What is the path that will help us accomplish our goals?
    • Fitting into trendier clothes might require a reduction in weight and inches.
    • Seeing our toes will need a reduction of weight and lessening of tummy fat, achieved via fasting.
    • Improving blood sugar control and relief from high blood pressure will happen with a fasting regime and improved dietary contents, in addition to increased daily activity.

When all three of the above happen together, and are constantly reinforced by repetition and reading, that can be termed as will power.

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