What can I find to substitute for eating? How about nothing!By: Warren Huberman, Ph.D.
Many authors, self-help gurus and other diet and eating experts suggest that we find substitutions for eating, however, the best thing to do might be to simply do nothing. Sounds strange? Why do we have to find substitutes for eating? What about just not eating?
Consider that often times the act of eating serves little or no purpose. Many patients tell me “I’m not hungry” or “I’m not craving anything in particular yet I still keep finding myself in the kitchen going through the cabinets looking for something.” In this situation, why replace one senseless, purposeless behavior for another?
It would almost seem to make sense to substitute another behavior for eating if there was a specific purpose the eating was serving. This form of eating is often referred to as “self-medicating.” For example, if someone finds they are eating at night because they are depressed, lonely or anxious (“self-medicating” the depression, loneliness or anxiety with food), finding better ways of managing depression, loneliness or anxiety to replace eating seems to be an appropriate suggestion. Similarly, many people tell me that they eat at night because they are bored. Eating doesn’t really do much to address boredom, but clearly there are a million and one things someone can learn to do to address boredom that would be better than eating. Going out for a walk, performing some household chores, and calling a friend might be some examples. But what about those people who eat and aren’t even sure why?
Before you try to come up with a quick substitute for eating, consider that the act of eating is a habit. In other words, one of the primary reasons that you are eating is because you have a long history of eating. Over the course of many years, you have unintentionally trained your brain to request food under specific circumstances in specific situations and now, many years later, whenever you are in those specific situations, your brain makes you think of eating and compels you to eat. So the urge to eat is just like a thought. (Yes, there are biological and other factors as play but just stick with me for the moment!) Your brain decided to pop the idea of eating into the front of your mind. This is a perfect example of the famous Pavolvian conditioning (or Classical Conditioning) that you learned in high school. In these situations your desire to eat something is nothing more than an automated response generated by your brain. You paired specific situations together with eating thousands of times and now…voila!!! The situation triggers a desire to eat. Maybe you refer to this is “a habit.” But you don’t have to obey your thoughts and you can break old habits!!
Here’s what you can do. Try to identify as many of your eating triggers as possible. Over the course of a week, write down (yes…write down!!!) every situation you were in when you put something in your mouth. Notice any patterns? Is it often when you’re bored? Is it often at night? Is it often simply when there happened to be food around? Then, over the course of the next week, try to be mindful during those same situations. In others words, when you become aware that you have the urge to eat in a particular situation even though you’re not particularly hungry or craving anything in particular, just sit there in the moment and be still. Notice that you want to eat and don’t do it. Just let the thought be…let it float around your mind a little and prove to yourself that you don’t have to do anything about it.
Not only don’t you have to respond to the thought of eating by going into the kitchen to eat, you don’t even have to pay attention to the thought itself! After a few minutes it will likely go away on its own. Something else will come up in the next few minutes that distracts you from it entirely. Walk away from the kitchen, the refrigerator or the plate of cookies and just move on to the next activity. You may find that after 5-10 minutes that you forgot about your urge to eat.
With practice your ability to say “no” will improve and the urges to eat under these circumstances will diminish because you will be changing the consequence attached to that thought. Every time you eat in response to the thought of eating, the link between the thought and the behavior get stronger. Every time you have a thought about eating and DON’T eat, the association between thinking of food and eating gets weaker. Through time one of two things will happen: either your ability to simply let the thought harmlessly float around your mind will improve or the thoughts will stop happening altogether.
Now, what about those situations where you are self-medicating…when you are using food to cope with anxiety, loneliness, depression or other emotions? Even in these situations, you don’t have to find a substitute for eating. We have this ridiculous notion that we always should try to be comfortable and to avoid emotional pain. In fact, I will make the argument that avoiding emotional pain and finding a substitute activity for eating is exactly what you shouldn’t do. Here’s why…
If you are a person who “self-medicates” with food, somewhere during your life you learned that food can temporarily diminish your unpleasant feelings. For a brief while you get relief from your unpleasant feelings and actually feel better (until the guilt kicks in!). But what that also means is that you are not dealing with your unpleasant emotions and addressing what maintains them…and that is why they continue to bother you. You are simply covering those feelings over with cookies, potato chips or peanut butter. To really fix this problem once and for all, you have to become aware of those unpleasant feelings and actually feel them and work through them. Not eat through them or find some substitute behavior for them.
Here’s what you can do. Once again, try to identify as many of your emotional eating triggers as possible. Over the course of a week, write down (yes…write down!!!) every unpleasant emotional state you were in when you put something in your mouth. Notice any patterns? Is it often when you’re lonely? Depressed? Worried? Then, over the course of the next week, try to be mindful when you are feeling those same emotions and having the urge to eat. Instead of eating, have a pad and pen ready and write down what you are thinking and what you are feeling. Then, try to write down what kinds of strategies might address these problems. For example, if you are lonely, think of as many ways as you can to try to meet some new people or reconnect with old friends. If you are depressed or anxious, think of as many ways as you can to get help with your depression or anxiety (exercise, therapy, support groups, online support, talk to friends, medications, exercise, etc). In this way, you can truly begin to address the sources of your emotional upset and put out the fire, rather than just finding a temporary substitute for eating.
Dr. Huberman is a Clinical Psychologist with a practice in New York City. He is a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. He is an Affiliate Psychologist at the NYU Langone Medical Center and NSLIJ-Lenox Hill Hospital. Dr. Huberman is a consulting psychologist to the NYU/Langone Weight Management Program. He is the author of the New Book “Through Thick & Thin: The Emotional Journey of Weight Loss Surgery.” For more information, visit warrenhuberman.com.