FEEL like a snack? Staying ahead of emotional eating triggers.

Dr Gary
By Dr GaryCA Latest Reply 2010-12-23 16:19:10 -0600
Started 2010-12-17 13:46:01 -0600

Recently, a client who is dealing with a recent Type II diabetes diagnosis told me about a frustrating experience that included an unexpected tax bill. “What did you do then?” I asked.

She gave me a sheepish look and then answered: “I stopped at an ice cream place and had a big old hot fudge pecan sundae, and then I felt better. And then I felt awful.”

The lesson here? Hunger is only one of the reasons we eat.

And with holiday eating going on all around us, all those “tidings of comfort and joy” – as well as the holiday stress – are sure to get translated into too many carbs and sugar.

Eating can also be a reaction to the way we are feeling emotionally, so that emotions can become a motivator for eating. I have clients who report that they are “depression eaters” or “stress eaters.” When they are feeling sad or lonely, or overwhelmed, they might be tempted to buddy up with Ben & Jerry, and consume a pint or two of their favorites. Clients have also told me stories about getting mad and having a Big Mac attack, and attacking a Big Mac. Or feeling helpless and out of control, and wrestling with a slab of banana cream pie (my personal favorite…). Or stress that leads to the desire to dive into a bag of potato chips to ride out the storm.

No argument here: food can certainly be an effective bandage to cover uncomfortable emotions, at least temporarily. But the evidence isn't so easy to overcome. And that’s bad news to someone dealing with diabetes.

While diet and willpower are critical, it might also be helpful to get a handle on your emotions, to understand how your emotions can become a trigger for destructive eating habits.

Triggers? To get started, think about those times when you are most likely to go off your diet. What’s going on emotionally when you get hit with a sudden craving for forbidden food? You might want to do your own mini-analysis of emotional triggers – anger, frustration, loneliness – as well as environmental triggers – certain people who push the wrong kind of food at you.

Alternatives? Now that you have an idea about your triggers, brainstorm with yourself about some alternative ways of coping with these triggers. Instead of facing off with that cream pie, is there someone you could call and talk to? A favorite activity? Or, you might consider having some healthy snacks around that might help to satisfy that craving. Sure it won’t be quite the same, but the benefits, including the avoidance of the consequences, will be a whole lot better.

Need help? Counseling techniques like CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and mindfulness practices can help you to recognize how you are feeling emotionally, to be proactive about protecting yourself from getting too deep into emotional states like depression and out of control anger, and also to develop alternatives ways of coping with emotions that don't involve food.

You can develop healthy alternatives to reacting to emotional eating triggers!

Now… any techniques to share for dealing with food cravings? Inquiring minds want to know. At least my inquiring mind does!

28 replies

jayabee52 2010-12-20 18:02:35 -0600 Report

I notice I sometimes eat because I'm bored. One of my ways to fight that boredom is to log on to DC!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-21 09:31:36 -0600 Report

I love this! Boredom is a major eating trigger. Boredom causes us to get overly focused on ourselves, e.g. "navel gazing," and sooner or later it can lead to thinking about food. In that way, we can think ourselves hungry. DC is a great way to make productive use of downtime, giving and receiving. Thank you!

realsis77 2010-12-19 15:39:26 -0600 Report

I'm lucky doc because when I'm worried or nervous I can't eat! I guess I got that going for me! I do need a healthy way of dealing because I do smoke! More stress more smoking, I know I need to quit but its sooo hard!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-19 21:42:47 -0600 Report

Well, you bring up an interesting point here. Smoking and eating are a lot alike in terms of addictive behaviors. Smokers also have triggers that work the same way as a Big Mac attack. Smoking is a hard one to quit, but lots of tools out there to help you do it. Not to nag at you, but it's worth the effort to kick the habit.

realsis77 2010-12-20 10:51:52 -0600 Report

Your right doc! I will be working on quitting this new year! Wish me luck! Thanks for the advice! I almost hate to admit I'm a smoker because smoking has made me feel skummy and sometimes like a second class person! I know I must stop! Its sooo rough! I hope you don't think less of me because I smoke! Sometimes I feel less than because of it!but a new year is comming and a perfect time to quit! Wish me luck!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-20 17:51:30 -0600 Report

I have a lot of smokers in my family. I pick up habits easily myself but suspect that I was "saved" from the desire to start smoking due to having asthma during those years when I would have been most susceptible, junior and high school. There but for the grace of God... The attitudes about smoking are interesting -- smokers are criticised but there is a also a cool factor involved, the rebel without a cause. The rebel side pulls people in, and then the addiction keeps them there.

Let's not forget that nicotine has been called the most addictive drug known to humankind. It helps you to mentally focus, may relieve depression, and has other benefits, but the method of administration -- smoking -- is real bad for you, to say the least. And again, the more you put into your body the more your body wants.

Don't beat up on yourself, that is the last thing you need. Show patience and compassion toward yourself. Congratulate yourself for making the decision to kick the habit.

Talk to your doctor and work out a plan, possibly with the patch, and any of the smoking cessation meds that he/she would recommend.

Don't stop smoking until you have a solid plan in place. Get to know your personal smoking triggers and then avoid them, e.g. sitting in your favorite chair and smoking while you talk on the phone, or having a cup of coffee after dinner with a cigarette. Rearrange your furniture if you have to. Stop smoking in the house.

This may take some time. You may have a few relapses along the way. Most people do. But if you are persistent, you will find your own pathway toward kicking the habit.

Hold in your mind the people in your life that you want to be healthy for. Maybe you can enlist some of them for your support team. (And tell your smoking friends to support you and not tempt you.)

YOu can do! Check in with your friends on Diabetic Connect for support along the way!

GabbyPA 2010-12-18 14:09:35 -0600 Report

Oh my...are you following me Dr. Gary? I emotional medicate with food more than eat of hunger. It is most frustrating.

One thing that I do is make sure as little of the really bad stuff is hanging around for me to grab. I also don't keep money on me so I am not tempted to stop in anywhere and snack. Staying out of fast food places are the best thing I ever did. I do go once in a while, but for the most part, we as a family do not eat at them anymore. That keeps the ice coffee's and smoothies out of my hands.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-19 21:39:42 -0600 Report

Hi Gabby, I think what you are describing is the human condition, at least for most of us. It takes diligence and discipline, and it's not fun. Food is comfort, from alll of those carbs and fat. And we associate it with memories of past happy times. That's what keeps us going back to the fast food, and if you watch the commercials from this perspective, the companies speak to that side of us in their advertising. But you're right, it puts on the poundage and can shoot us up with sugar.

GabbyPA 2010-12-20 07:15:36 -0600 Report

I think too it is even more elementary than that. I really do believe that our bodies are made to pack on calories as our lifestyles used to require it. Hunter gatherers never knew where the next meal was coming from. Agriculture changed all of that and our bodies have not yet accepted that we don't go out and hunt for our meals. Burning calories in survival is not an issue anymore. Eating carb filled meals (unprocessed of course) was needed in the winter to keep a body warm and in summer to keep up with the activity we used to do.

Eating seasonally has all but vanished, but I do think our bodies still send us those signals. Ever wonder why it is harder to eat salads in the winter? Our bodies are afraid of those foods in the winter. It is against nature to do that. So we do have to find our way around what our bodies are wired to do. I'm afraid I don't always do so great, but at least I am learning to understand what my body is telling me...even if it is not what I need.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-20 17:38:35 -0600 Report

This is fascinating. I have never thought about eating in this way. But it makes a lot of sense. In 20 degree weather, that cheese tortellini does look a whole lot better than the chicken ceaser salad. So we have the psychological stuff that goes on around eating, as well as the hardwired urges that nature gave us. No wonder it is so hard to eat in a way that fits our lifestyles. At least by understanding these dynamics, we can learn to work with, and around, our natural urges, and not beat up on ourselves for having them. I am least fortunate that I have to do a lot of walking during the average day. (But not enough to earn a pasta blow-out.) Thanks!

GabbyPA 2010-12-20 21:38:05 -0600 Report

Sometimes we should listen to our cravings, the thing is to realize if we really NEED that craving or if it is just a habit. That is hard to figure out when the chicken and dumplings are calling you away from your cucumber salad. Yeah, that pasta bowl is never on the menu anymore. Bummer. =0)

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-21 09:53:43 -0600 Report

Very good point! I am told that cravings for tomato sauce, for example, or citrus fruit, can be a message from your body. How to listen and interpret, and not talk yourself into eating the forbidden foods, is the challenge.

GabbyPA 2010-12-23 10:29:42 -0600 Report

LOL...nope. If you want chocolate, you have to go for the 85% dark kinds that are bitter sweet. They have almost no carbs in them, but do take some getting used to.

RAYT721 2010-12-17 18:35:00 -0600 Report

I suppose the key is to learn to eat to live instead of live to eat. I have made some changes in my diet with swaps to lower fat this, lower carb that, lower sugar whatever. It works! I can have my cake and eat it too but I just choose to go with smaller portions. Taste makes WAIST. Stay out of the stores when hungry. Eat before you shop. The less food that comes into your home, the less food that goes in your stomach. I find that if I am craving something and have to drive to the store to get it, it loses my interest quicker than having it in the house. If I crave something and actually want to go out to get it (using some restraint) I deserve the treat. The more time I have to think about the craving, the more time I have to actually talk myself back down to earth. If I am heading out for a bag of chips, I will opt for the tiny bag over the family size and then will count the chips based on serving size. Note to self: a carton of ice cream is not a single serving. a beer or two is not a twelve pack. Moderation!!!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-19 21:26:33 -0600 Report

Hi Ray, some great advice here. Taste makes waist. I love that one. And you are absolutely right that being proactive about food, including not having "dangerous" food around, is a great idea. It's a way of protecting yourself when you are hit with triggers that might lead to irrational eating. With food, it seems that you can't let your guard down. Thanks!

Doc 720
Doc 720 2010-12-20 18:43:52 -0600 Report

Dr Gary, I would imagine the elimination of the dangerous food in your home would be one of the most beneficial ways. HOWEVER! What do you do when your wife does not support the diabetic friendly diet you require. Your kids even with appropriate threats eat your sick day rations. I eat what the family eats because we are currently on a very limited income. I can not afford to have six meals (3 for them and 3 for me +plus my snacks) prepared each day. My 1500-1800 cal. 45/45/60 +x2 15. has been out the window for quite sometime.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-21 09:48:45 -0600 Report

Hi Doc,

You bring up a really good point here. When a diabetic lives with others who don't share their diet, or even support it, that can be a big problem. It's not always realistic to assume that you can coexist with two separate meal plans. And I understand that kids aren't exactly excited about a sugar/junk food free diet. And then there is the cost factor -- a high protein diet can cost more than a higher carb diet. Pasta versus low fat grillled chicken, for example. I know this is a big challenge.

Now, I am not a diet expert, but I would really encourage you to do some research on lower cost, healthy food alternatives that support your diet requirements. It might be worthwhile to do some investigating around what you might be able to do to support your own diet, foods that everyone in the family might eat and foods that would be for you.

I have noticed a lot of diet-related postings here on DC. They would be worth spending some time checking out.

Do you have access to a dietician or CDE who could work with you on a plan that will best meet your specific needs, within the limitations that you have? Or, is this something that your doctor and/or his/her nurse might help you with?

I don't want you to think I am lecturing or scolding you, but I just want to say that the broader issue here is that it's really important to take care of yourself, as you know. Critically important.

In your case, you may need to put your own food in separate containers with your name on them, and restrict other family members from diving into them. It might also help to sit down with your family and explain to them that your future health -- and, in turn, their future -- depends in part on you staying as healthy as possible. And that means eating a healthy diet. In other words, you may need to "put your foot down" with your family to make sure that you stay as healthy as possible.

I suspect that your diabetes is basically invisible to your family members. They don't see how it is affecting you and they view your diet as a pain that will go away if everyone ignores it. You may need to remind them that it is not going to go away, and that you expect their support.

You can also demonstrate to them that you mean business by not eating snack foods that are clearly not on your diet. In other words, if you show by example that you are serious about your diet, the reality may further sink in and they will take you more seriously.

I am sorry to hear that you are both unsupported by your family as well as facing some economic restrictions. That's a double whammy for a diabetic.

I hope my words were helpful. I don't know you but, as your friend, want the best for you.

Stay connected with your friends here on DC, and please keep us posted!

Doc 720
Doc 720 2010-12-21 11:38:02 -0600 Report

Dr, Gary,

First let me say that I neither think you are lecturing nor scolding and I do really appreciate your insights.

Although I am currently the only diabetic within my nuclear family, when you branch out and look; my side of the family is eat up with it. I have only one sister who is in denial with FBS’s of 178 and an A1C of 6.2, all via home tests. She borrowed some of mom’s test strips and Home A1C.

Mom, all six of her brothers and sisters were Type II’s, Maternal Grandmother was Type II. And the list goes on.

The Wife, her father is Type II, has had Quad-Bypass surgery, and just recently has had vein grafts in both legs due to really bad circulation. Her father’s family is just as bad as mine for the Dz.

The wife absolutely refuses a routine finger stick and will not go in for routine check-ups. She is rather svelte as you can see in one of the photos I posted. However she is just as at risk. I have noticed her with a water bottle in her hand almost 24/7. Wow, seems familiar. What is it, you are and have been for about 10 years before you are diagnosed.

I have $200 in diabetic cookbooks which are never consulted because “That food is worse than airline food.”

I am not making excuses; I am just tired and have finally gave up the fight. I see the hieroglyphics on the wall and I see the potential, yes I said Potential writing on the wall for my two children. I just want the best for them and to avoid the crap I am dealing with. (I just upped my Lantus today to 60 AM/PM. BG was 206 avg for past 2 weeks at 56.) See MAGIC clinic 3 Jan. Endo say’s “You are right on Target.” Something just does not feel right.

I will keep you up-to-date.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-21 16:21:17 -0600 Report


SO glad to hear from you. I really am concerned about you and hope that was clear in my note. And I really do get that you are in a bad situation here.

I can understand your frustration, not getting support for your own diabetic care while also being concerned that your wife is at risk, to say the least. Knowing that about her gives me some additional insight into what's going on here. It sounds like your wife is in deep denial, and that keeps her from supporting you because she would also have to look at herself. For me, this conjures up an image of someone on the run!

I can certainly understand why you are tired out here. It's hard to get people to listen when they have a vested interest in not hearing. I can't advise you on diet and medication, but I am glad that you are working closely with your doctor.

It's great that you are reaching out to your friends here in DC. And I hope that you also have supportive people around you, friends or other family members, who are good listeners and who watch out for you.

I would also encourage you to look for those "teachable moments" when you can drop hints about the importance of diet and self-care for people with diabetes and who are at risk for diabetes. Now, I am not sure if you are a cook or not, but you might also want to consider making some of your own food, or at least stocking your own private stash of a few food items that are affordable and will support your diet.

Thanks a lot for responding to my post, and for the additional detail about what's going on in your life.

And please do keep me posted on what's going on with you.

Doc 720
Doc 720 2010-12-21 21:40:18 -0600 Report

Dr. Gary, I have been in the health care field for 22 years and I AM FRUSTRATED!! Key word here is frustrated and not completely done. I will make it and at this point, if it takes a stroke or worse on my part to help my wife and kids, then so be it.

No Seriously, you have heard many people say "WHY? Lord why dod you take them instead of me?"

I am at the point that I am ready to sacrifice myself if my wife and kids will be able to say "Holly S#!^!!! I need to help my self. I need to ensure I am healthy.

Don't PLEASE Don't get the idea that I do not love them. My family is; I say again, MY FAMILY IS My LIFE!!!

But if it takes me to be a tragedy, then I am willing and able to do said same.

As for the "Teachable Moments" I have submitted my Resume and Bio to AVINTIS. I also sent you and each of the CA/PA/etc's a message regarding the same, but have not heard from anyone. I have a lot of good info to pass and know how to find answers. but again, I was an independent duty corpsman in the US Navy and naval medicine is not good enough for the civilian population.

I am gonna hush as I am about to get myself in trouble.

Pynetree 2010-12-23 11:45:23 -0600 Report

Jeeze Doc…"ready to sacrifice " yourself !? Yikes..step back, take a breath, your stroke or possible death won't teach them anything other than "look what diabetes did to him!" You can only teach my example…live the healthiest day you can…sleep…and get up and do it again.
That's a bit telling…how the "military thinking" differs with the non-military. You can not TELL them and have it happen. You may be "willing and able" to sacrifice yourself, but no one's going to get the message that THEY better straighten up and fly right. They're just gonna be real sad you didn't.
I agree that if your wife was on board it would make meal planning, cooking, and eating healthier so much easier. But She needen't be diabetic , although from your post I too, think she stands a good chance of being, the food is the same! The diabetic class I took, the RD said there is NO FOOD a diabetic can not eat! You just can't eat the same proportions and stay in good range of BG and be healthy. Diabetic cookbooks (and I envy you yours) are wonderful…but it's the same food..cooked healthier. If you eat more than a serving it's just as bad for you. Boils down to YOU have the power over YOU.
The temptation is my biggest problem. My non-diabetic husband brings home pies, cookies, multi-calorie coffee drinks(my downfall!) and I know I have to say no. That I can only have a taste..or sacrafice a whole meal just to have the mocha caramel macchiatta…and I've done that! But it's not fair that he and our daughter can't eat the junk if they want…I can't, and find it hard to resist…but, all I can do is grab those teachable moments…and say"Oh…I'll just take a taste of this…my BG will be off the chart if I have more than a small piece/bite/sip of this."
But keep posting..I am getting something out of them! Thanks

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-23 16:19:10 -0600 Report

Hi! Thanks for adding your perspective. And a very empowered perspective! We don't have control over everything and some days it feels liike we don't have control over anything. But, as you say, you do have power over you. The more cheerleaders, the better!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-22 17:20:05 -0600 Report

I can understand why you are frustrated. Sometimes it just takes a lot of patience, along with gentle persistence, and gradually people begin to listen. At some point they are ready to hear, and you'll be there with the message. This has certainly been my experience, and I hope the same happens for you. But I would add that the best way to impact people is to be a posiitive, empowered role model. That's what will help them the most!

CaliKo 2010-12-17 15:09:36 -0600 Report

My temptation is stress-related eating at work, especially if my workload is light. I'm so busy at home and out that I don't think about food too much. I just try to productively fill my time, and sometimes take a walk around the building. You are right that its important to recognize the triggers so we can work on how to counteract it. Thanks for the thoughts.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2010-12-19 21:23:35 -0600 Report

And thank you! I am also a downtime eater. It makes me realize just how much of hunger can be psychological and not physical. But exerting mind over matter on that one is not easy.