Three Things You Can Do When You Feel Like Eating, But It’s Not Time To Eat

Intuitive eating is a great concept, but we find that for many people who have struggled with their eating, their intuition can be unreliable. It urges them to eat when they’re bored. It tells them to eat when they’re stressed, anxious, celebrating or angry. Their intuition doesn’t differentiate between hunger, being tired or having a craving. For this reason, we work with many of our clients on eating according to a set schedule throughout the day. In doing so, they rely on the clock and their predetermined eating structure to tell them when to eat, not what is going on internally.The witching hour

Because of this, many of our clients find themselves in the position of wanting to eat but it not being time to eat. What motivates this desire to eat? It could be one of 100 different things: hunger, stress, boredom, fatigue, anxiety, anger, wanting to procrastinate, sadness, loneliness and so on. Here are three things that we work with clients on doing when they want to eat but it’s not yet time.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation

My client Jason found that his mind often strayed to what food was in his kitchen mid-morning. He’d already had a good breakfast, and lunch usually wasn’t for at least another hour or two, yet Jason found himself with very strong food cravings many mornings. Jason and I discussed what was typically happening around the time of his food cravings, and he realized it was usually right around when he was figuring out his work schedule for the day and trying to figure out how to accomplish everything he needed to do. We determined that the desire to eat wasn’t about hunger, it was about stress and/or having trouble getting work started. Jason came up with the strategy of doing a 10-minute mindfulness meditation every day after breakfast and before he started work, to help get centered and focused for the day. He found within the first week that this made a huge difference in getting through the mornings without wanting to eat.

  1. Go for a walk/get some exercise

My client Rachel found that she had developed a food “witching hour” – usually around 4 or 5 p.m., during which her food cravings were very strong and she had a hard time not going into the kitchen and eating snack after snack. Like many people, Rachel is now working from home and we realized that much of her “witching hour” food cravings were not actually about a craving for food, it was Rachel’s brain craving a transition from her work day to her evening. In the past, Rachel would walk home most days (which took her about 25 minutes) and without even meaning to, that walk was likely the signal that her workday was over. We decided that every day (weather permitting) at 4:30 Rachel would go out for a walk (or do yoga inside if she needed to). This way, not only would she be out of the house and away from the kitchen, she would be giving herself a transition between work and home and getting in some exercise.

  1. Read Response Cards and do a distracting activity

My client Jen was struggling to maintain control over her eating in the evenings. After dinner and getting her kids to bed, Jen would settle in front of the television with her husband and just want to eat and eat. For Jen, we did two things. First, we instituted a set evening snack time of 8:30 p.m. This was the midpoint for her between settling in for the evening and going to bed. When Jen was tempted to eat before her snack time, the first thing she would do was read Response Cards and remind herself exactly why it was worth it to her to wait. Then, she would do an activity. While watching TV with her husband was great, it still left enough of Jen’s mind idle, and when her mind was idle, it turned to food. We decided that while she watched TV, she would do another activity to fully engage her brain, like an adult coloring book, knitting or playing a game on her phone.

If you are struggling with wanting to eat too often throughout the day, consider if any of these strategies might work for you, too.

Working from Home

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking to most of my clients about how to manage their eating now that they’re all working from home. While there are eating challenges when people work in an office (break room goodies, lunch meetings, tempting restaurants close by), working from home and being near the refrigerator and pantry all day can be hard to manage.

The number one biggest strategy I’ve been working with my clients on is follow an eating schedule. Without the structure of a day in the office to guide their eating, many of my clients found themselves wandering into the kitchen multiple times a day looking for a snack (boredom, stress, wanting to procrastinate, etc.). Without some type of eating schedule in place, every time they thought about eating – and right now they’re thinking about eating a lot – they have to make the decision whether or not to eat. Every time a food thought pops into their Cutting board of healthy food.head, they have to ask themselves, “is this hunger? Is this just boredom? Should I eat? Should I try to wait?”

Having to engage in those questions over and over throughout the day can get exhausting and leaves a lot of room for error. When they follow an eating schedule, every time they think about eating, they just look at the clock. If it’s time to eat, they eat. If it’s not time to eat, they don’t eat. They don’t have to worry about figuring out whether it’s hunger, or a craving, or emotions welling up, or boredom. It just doesn’t matter why they want to eat. If it’s not time to eat, they don’t eat. Period.

My client, Rachel, started following this eating schedule last week:

  • Breakfast: 7:00-8:00
  • Lunch: 12:00-1:00
  • Snack: 3:00-4:00
  • Dinner: 6:00-7:30
  • Dessert: 8:30-9:30

In session this week she told me that following her schedule made a huge difference in helping her feel in control of her eating. She said it took so much stress off of eating during the day because it was so clear cut when it was time to eat and when it wasn’t. On one day when she started thinking about food around 11:00am, she said to herself, “It’s not time to eat right now. Lunch is in an hour, go find something distracting to do and it will be here before you know it.” On another day when she wanted to eat around 5:00pm, she said to herself, “You just had a snack an hour ago. This isn’t about hunger, it’s about feeling stressed. Go take a walk, that will help me destress just as much as eating would.”

While following an eating schedule puts restrictions on when you can eat, most people actually find it incredibly liberating because it frees you from having to make food decisions all throughout the day. If you’re struggling to control your eating right now, follow an eating schedule! Figure out what times it makes sense for you to eat throughout the day and whenever you want to eat at an unscheduled time, remind yourself that your next meal or snack isn’t so far away and find something else to do.

Play it Forward

Usually when dieters are faced with eating something they want to eat, in that moment they’re thinking about how good it will taste and how deprived they’ll feel if they can’t have it, rather than looking at what will happen once the food is gone.

Progress Not Perfection

For the last few weeks, my client, Jenna, has been working hard on overcoming emotional eating.

Off-Track Mentality

My client, Scott, has had a really hard two weeks.  He’s been dealing with a lot of stress at work and his eating has definitely suffered. He’s struggled to track his calories (something he was fairly easily getting himself to do before) and was feeling too worn out to get himself to prepare healthy dinners at night, and consequently fell back into old habits of ordering takeout.

Working on Eating During a Crisis

My client, Megan, is going through a really hard time. Her mother is facing a major health crisis and when Megan and I met this week, she told me she was having trouble staying in control of her eating. She kept having thoughts like, “I just can’t deal with worrying about my eating right now. It’s too hard.”

Stress Eating

A client I worked with a few years ago recently had her second baby and was having trouble getting her eating back under control. Lara told me that during her pregnancy, she let herself eat whatever she wanted and ended up gaining more weight than was healthy. Now at six months postpartum, she’s still struggling to put the skills that we had worked on back in place.

In Session with Deborah: Difficulties Going Home

This week, I had a session with my dieter, Emily. Emily told me that she and her sister are planning a trip home this weekend to celebrate their mother’s birthday, and that she thought it would be hard in a number of ways:  Emily would be off of her usual routine, she would be spending a long time in the car, she would have fewer occasions to exercise, and she would not be in control of her food.  Beyond these practical matters, Emily also told me that saying in control of her eating might be difficult because she would be experiencing more stress, which puts her in danger of engaging in emotional eating.  Although Emily loves her family, she also finds that being around them for an extended period of time can be stressful (in part because they often comment about what she does and doesn’t eat).

In session, Emily and I spent most of the time coming up with strategies for both her practical and psychological concerns.  Emily knew that one the most helpful things she can do for herself is to make a general plan for her eating and exercise over the weekend.  Emily decided that she would plan ahead and bring meals and healthy snacks in the car so that she wouldn’t have to worry about finding healthy choices on the road or being tempted by unhealthy food.  Emily also decided that she would make it priority to take at least a 20 minute walk each day that she at home, which would have the dual benefit of getting in some exercise and also being a stress-reliever.

Emily and I also discussed what sabotaging thoughts that might come up this weekend.  Emily said that her family often watches what she eats and makes comments, and although they are usually well-meaning, they cause Emily stress.   I pointed out to Emily that because she is now an adult, she doesn’t have to worry about “rebelling” against family by sneaking food or worry about what they will say about her eating because the only person she has to answer to is herself.  Emily I discussed this idea further and she made the following Response Card:

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I also discussed the emotional eating aspects that might come into play this weekend and what strategies she can use if she’s feeling negative emotions, like taking a walk outside, working on deep breathing and relaxtion, or calling a friend.  We also discussed the fact that going home is more of an emotional experience for her, and therefore it’s normal that Emily would feel that way.  Just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean anything is wrong, and just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean she has to do anything about it.  It will go away on its own, as it always does.  Emily made the following Response Card:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I also discussed the fact that she should go into the weekend knowing and expecting that it will be more difficult to maintain control over her eating; this way she won’t be surprised when it happens. As long as Emily knows this ahead of time and fortifies herself, when the difficulty hits, she will be ready and prepared.

5 Strategies to Get Through Hard Times

In our work with dieters, one of the first things we let them know is this: When they start out, dieting may be fairly easy because they are highly motivated, and then as they practice their skills more and more, dieting gets easier. But at some point, dieting will get more difficult.  This is normal and inevitable and it happens to everyone.  We also let dieters know that when this happens, it doesn’t mean that they are doing anything wrong, and if they keep pushing through dieting will get easier again, 100% of the time.  The problem is that most dieters don’t know that dieting is supposed to get hard at some point and when this happens they panic, thinking that something has gone wrong, it will continue to be this hard, and it’s just not worth it.  And then what happens? They give up.  But this giving up is entirely unnecessary because dieting will get easier again if they keep doing what they’re doing.

What dieters can do when the dieting gets hard:

1. Make sure that their Advantages Lists are not feeling stale.   During hard times it’s usually more difficult for dieters to remember just why it’s worth it to them to put in the necessary time and energy, so it’s important that they frequently remind themselves by reading their Advantages List However, not only is it important for dieters to read their list, it is also important for these lists to resonate with them and to feel fresh and inspiring.  If dieters have been reading the same list over and over again, it may start to feel rote.  To help with this, dieters try strategies like reword their list, add new items, read just the top three each day, take a few minute to really visualize some of the items, etc. 

2. Think about past experiences. When dieters are going through a harder time, they often forget how good it feels when they’re in control of their eating. If dieters take time to really think about a recent experience when they stayed in control and remember not only how good it felt, but also simply the fact that they were able to do it in the first place, it can help remind them that dieting is not always so difficult and that, most of the time, it feels worth it.

3. Focus on the basics. When dieting gets rough, it can be helpful for dieters to take a few steps back and concentrate just on some of the most essential dieting skills, like reading their Advantages List, reading Response Cards, eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully, and giving themselves credit. Doing so can help dieters regain their focus and also feel more confident about what they’re doing because they already know they can do these things.

4. Respond to Sabotaging Thinking.  Often when dieters are going through a hard time, they have lots of sabotaging thoughts like, “This is so hard, I just can’t do it,” and, “It’s not worth it to me to continue trying to lose weight.”  If left unanswered, these thoughts can lead dieters to give up so it’s critical that they take time to identify what sabotaging thoughts they are having, make Response Cards, and practice reading them every day.    For example, dieters can remind themselves:

The things on my Advantages List are worth fighting for so just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I should give up. I’ve worked hard and accomplished other things in my life that weren’t immediately easy, and I can do this, too.

Hard times always pass. This is temporary and as long as I keep doing what I’m doing, it will get easier again.  Just keep working!

5. Make sure they are giving themselves credit.  Sometimes when dieting gets difficult dieters forget to give themselves credit for all of the good things they are still doing.  This is particularly likely to happen if they are only focusing on how hard or bad things feel.  When going through a hard time, it’s critically important for dieters to give themselves credit because they often begin to lose their confidence and sense of self-efficacy and question whether or not they can really do everything.  By recognizing the things that they are still doing, and doing well, they can fight against this and regain (or maintain) a sense of pride and achievement.

Job Stress and Eating

My dieter, Jeff, is a police officer and after a long shift he usually feels exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Because of this, whenever he gets home from work he usually ends up eating a huge meal (of unhealthy foods) because he feels a lot of self-pity and stress and has the sabotaging thought that he “deserves” to eat to feel better. Jeff told me that the thought of coming home and not eating a big meal makes him feel deprived and more self-pitying.  Although Jeff knows that this is something that was sabotaging his weight loss efforts, he couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle.

Jeff and I discussed this situation in depth during our last diet session. The first thing I did was ask Jeff how he felt after he got home and ate a big meal and whether or not it achieved his goal of feeling better. Jeff reported that while he did temporarily feel better while he was eating because he was distracted from thinking about his long shift, towards the end of his meal, or almost immediately after, he started feeling a lot of guilt, regret, and self-recrimination. When he thought about it, Jeff admitted that he actually ended up feeling worse than he did before he started eating.

I pointed out to Jeff that this was good news: it’s a good thing that eating didn’t ultimately satisfy his goal because that would give him extra motivation to work on making changes and figuring out what would actually make him feel better, both in the short term and in the long term.

Jeff and I discussed the fact that after a hard work shift, he certainly does deserve to relax and he certainly does deserve to calm down and de-stress, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go off his diet, feel even worse, and maintain his unhealthy weight. Jeff and I discussed a number of strategies that he could use when he gets home which would help him relax and shed the burden of his job without turning to food. We also came up with a number of Response Cards for Jeff to read while he was still in his car, before he even walked into his house. Here are some of Jeff’s Response Cards:

When I think I deserve to eat something that will make me feel good, remember: THIS WILL ACTUALLY MAKE ME FEEL BAD. And it will cause MORE self-pity because then I’ll also feel bad about myself, guilty about my eating, and weak.

When I’m feeling stress/self-pity and I’m tempted to eat, ask myself: Do I want to feel better or do I want to feel worse?

Eating when I’m feeling stressed is effective – but ONLY IN THE SHORT TERM. It has 100% negative consequences in the long term – I’ll gain weight, I’ll stay overweight, I’ll reinforce the tendency to give in, I’ll feel bad about myself, I’ll feel guilty about what I ate, it may cause me to continue having a bad eating day, etc.

If I feel “deprived” because I can’t eat everything I want when I’m stressed, remind myself: either way I’m deprived. Either I’m deprived of EVERYTHING on my Advantages List, or I’m deprived of some food, some of the time. Which would be the bigger deprivation?

Jeff and I also discussed the fact that when he maintains control over his eating, regardless of the situation, he feels great about himself. Because of this, we knew that if Jeff stayed in control of his eating after a long shift at work, this in and of itself would help him feel better because he would at least be able to feel good about his eating.