Identify Emotional Need Before Changing Eating Habits

Developing healthy eating habits often is viewed exclusively as a physical endeavor — one to be supported by biological and nutritional science. These are important components to be sure, but also exclude an important truth — our relationship to food is often an emotional one.

by Carmen Catterfield, MA, Honeybee Healing & Counseling Services

If you have been attempting to change a food-related behavior for some time without any success, it may be time to turn inward. 

Let’s say you’re starting a new diet or you’re trying to cut out your “guilty pleasure.” You feel ready, but yet you can barely get through the first week. We tend to blame ourselves. But this is missing the fact that the food habit may be serving an emotional purpose in our life. 

Changing the behavior without replacing the emotional need it was meeting is almost impossible.  This is not a failure; it simply means we have to start with the emotional problem first before we can change the behavior. 

Find time to sit down and imagine doing the behavior you are hoping to change. Maybe it’s eating that third cookie or maybe it’s the idea of not eating at all. 

Ask yourself what feels good about this behavior? Because something feels good about it. Maybe it makes you feel comforted or in control or rewarded after a long day. Write down everything you can think of. This is your emotional need. This is the reason you can’t stop. 

Flip the page. Think about all of the other things you feel after you engage in this food behavior. Chances are, if you’re trying to change it, it has some negative impact on your life. Be as specific as you can. 

You may already know these consequences clearly or some of them may come as a surprise. Try not to become critical toward yourself at this point, remember you are just gathering information, and there is still one more step. 

Go back to the emotional need from the first page. Write down a list of all the other activities in your life that give you the same positive feeling. Be as specific and creative as you can. Then come up with ways to bring these behaviors into your daily routine. 

It will become essential that you prioritize these replacement behaviors as you are trying to change your food habit.