While food’s main purpose is to serve as fuel for our bodies, most of us are also aware of emotional associations that get tangled up in our eating decisions. Some of these associations are positive and self-affirming; others introduce feelings of regret or frustration; and sometimes a mix of positive and negative emotions is possible.
If you are caring for an aging parent, you may be particularly susceptible to emotional triggers. Recognizing the dynamics at play can help you make intentional choices about the foods you fuel your body with.
Grief. Sometimes, caregivers may be grieving the decline they see in a parent’s health, and they turn to certain foods as a source of comfort. Homemade macaroni and cheese, rich beef stew, warm apple pie — comfort foods like this are reminders of “simpler” times, when Mom was healthy and the family gathered around the table each night. Indulging in comfort food is often more about feeding our emotions than feeding our bodies.
Guilt. Guilt is another emotional trigger that is difficult to stand up to. Switching roles with a parent is emotionally complicated, and guilt has a way of twisting our best intentions and making it difficult to tell the difference between self-care and selfishness, between boundaries and avoidance. Sometimes guilt leads to overindulgence — either as a form of self-punishment or as a way to self-medicate.
Time. And often caregivers make poor food choices not because of emotional factors but because of the lack of time they have. If you are caring for your own children as well as your parents, you probably are not able to create nutritious, balanced, sit-down meals three times a day. You know that fast food and pre-packaged carbs are not the best fuel for your body, but that’s all you have time for right now. (And maybe you feel guilty about that!)
Becoming more aware of emotional dynamics is the first step to regaining control of your eating and your health. For example, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control when you are caring for kids and parents, and those feelings are complicated with feelings of guilt at not being able to “do it all.” But take a moment to recognize and name your feelings. Then put yourself back in control by making some conscious decisions. You might sit your family down and tell them, “I would love to be able to have dinner at home together six nights this week, but that is not going to happen. With your help though, I think we could manage three nights. How does that sound?” A conversation like this not only puts you in control of your emotions, it also helps your family see you as a leader rather than a victim, and it offers them a way to contribute, which may help alleviate some of the emotional dynamics they are experiencing.
If you find yourself over-indulging in comfort foods, recognize this — and talk about it. Tell your spouse or children about the family meals you remember from your childhood, and admit that you are grieving the changes you see in your parents. You don’t have to completely deny yourself these comfort foods, but being intentional about them can help you regain control. In other words, simply by naming the feelings involved, you can move from needing these foods constantly to choosing these foods occasionally, probably in smaller amounts!
As you begin feeling more in control again, make proactive decisions about the foods you will choose to fuel your body with — and wait until your body actually signals you that it’s hungry. Is your stomach growling? Are you feeling weak or dizzy? Don’t reach for the potato chips and candy bars! Instead, try options like these:
- Broccoli bits. It’s true that broccoli doesn’t have the same emotional appeal as chocolate chip cookies, but broccoli is rich with folic acid, which helps relieve stress, so give it a chance! If you don’t want to spend the prep time chopping broccoli into bite-sized bits, look for pre-prepped broccoli next to the express salad mixes.
- Whole grains. Toast some whole-grain bread or an English muffin and eat it with honey or peanut butter. Complex carbohydrates will satisfy you longer than simple sugars, and they raise serotonin levels, which can lift your mood. Plus, just that small bit of sugar in the honey or peanut butter is enough to decrease anxiety-producing hormones.
- Dark chocolate. There are actual, physiological reasons people turn to chocolate when they’re stressed — it contains a multitude of compounds that produce endorphins, stimulate the brain, and make people feel good. Only a small amount is needed, so don’t over-indulge. And choose chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or more.
- Milk. A glass of milk contains tryptophan, calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which help boost moods and lower blood pressure.
- Tea. Instead of depending on coffee to jumpstart your morning and keep you buzzing through the day, switch to tea. Black tea can lower stress hormones, and green tea can increase brainwaves that induce relaxation.
Food is not the only source of fuel we need. Caregivers and others in potentially stressful situations need other forms of nourishment too — mental stimulation, social interaction, and physical activity. It may not seem significant to call a friend, or walk around the block, or do a crossword puzzle, but these little breaks can nourish your spirit as well as your body. They engage different emotional “muscles,” which can help refresh your perspective.
Emotional eating is a habit that is reinforced by American culture, so it can be difficult to change. But be patient with yourself. Start today, and do the best you can. Start again tomorrow. This is not a diet you’re on; it’s a journey toward greater understanding and greater intentionality.
Print this page and tape it to your refrigerator. Review it each time you’re tempted to reach for a quick fix that won’t really help you. Add your own notes as you learn more about your cravings and needs. Enlist the help of your family and friends. Who knows, they may be looking for ways to avoid emotional overeating too, and you can enjoy the journey together!