By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
With Halloween right behind us and the holiday season just ahead, many people are dreading the onslaught of so-called “treats” that will emerge on countertops and workspaces around them.
While there are some people who have an allergic reaction to sugar and need to abstain from it because they simply cannot stop eating it once they start, many people without a sugar addiction find themselves struggling to eat sweets in moderation this time of the year.
In my line of thinking, the definition of “treating” oneself to a treat is that it feels good while you’re partaking in it and it feels good afterwards. In other words, nobody gets hurt! When someone “treats” themself to something sweet but feels terrible afterwards, it might be time to look at what exactly is being “treated” here.
Here are a few tips to help treat yourself well this holiday season:
Rule Out Hunger
In the same way that a caregiver needs to rule out the different reasons their child might be crying, overeaters can rule out some of the reasons they may have an urge to overeat. First and foremost: They may not be eating enough. Believe it or not, many emotional eaters, particularly those who are overweight, tend to not eat enough. Many of my clients report that they skip breakfast or don’t eat much during the day. Often, they think this is a good thing and don’t make the connection that it has something to do with why they can’t stop overeating at night. But not eating is a set up for overeating.
So, make sure that you eat a lovely, non-diet, moderate breakfast in the morning… every morning. This is as important as brushing your teeth, showering and getting dressed. Ideally, you’ll have a protein, some fat and a carbohydrate. Then, four to five hours later, repeat. And another four to five hours later, yup, you guessed it, repeat again! If, in between, you get physically hungry, feed yourself a small snack, preferably with some protein. Besides the fact that eating this way will prevent you from getting too hungry, it will also help stabilize your blood sugar so that when you do actually treat yourself to something sweet, it will feel like an actual treat, rather than a ravenous out-of-control window of time to get in as much as you can.
Somebody who eats a grilled-chicken salad topped with cheese, nuts and a delicious dressing, followed by a few of their favorite cookies is going to feel much different, physically and emotionally, than someone who skips breakfast and lunch, and later finds themselves bingeing on cookies. I know this is hard to conceptualize if you don’t think you should be eating cookies at all, but that’s why I’m writing this blog and hopefully giving you some food for thought! The goal isn’t to get you to stay away from sweets. It’s to help you see that what you’ve been doing may be causing you to eat too many sweets. This leads us to the next topic…
Deal With What You Feel
Once you address hunger or lack of satisfaction as the cause of your overeating, you can then begin to take notice of what you’re feeling when you have the urge to eat sweets. If you eat a moderate amount and feel satisfied, then you can know that your body just wanted something sweet and your eating wasn’t an attempt to numb or stuff your emotions.
However, if you find yourself wanting to eat the entire box or bag of sweets, something else is going on. Ask yourself with compassion and curiosity what you might be feeling inside. What are you needing? What might you be truly hungry for? Even if you don’t know right away, it still helps to ask and wonder. Sometimes all we can think of is how full we are or how badly we feel, but this just serves to keep us unaware of the original emotions that were about to bubble up prior to our overeating.
So the next time you are obsessing on sweets or wanting more than a “polite portion” of something, try wondering about what feelings you might be avoiding. While overindulging in sugar feels sweet initially, it usually leaves us feeling physically uncomfortable and emotionally empty. Conversely, welcoming your emotions in a kind and loving way can feel painful at first, but it is usually a relief afterwards.
Challenge Your Unkind Mind
One of the biggest factors that causes human beings pain is the way we speak to ourselves. And avoiding pain is a factor that can often lead to addictive eating. So when some of my clients report their litany of abusive self-talk — “I’m so fat.” “I blew it at work.” “What I said was so stupid.” “I’m not special enough (or good enough).” — It’s no wonder they want to drown themselves in the nearest chocolate cake. And whether the cake is an attempt to quiet that unkind mind, or to punish themselves for being all that their mind accuses them of (or both), overeating never dishes up what it promises. It doesn’t make your life feel sweet. It doesn’t even help you forget the things that are stressing you out. Oh, there is the initial high of sweet tastes and textures, but that’s often followed by the low of self-hate and a blood-sugar crash.
So the next time you feel the urge to overindulge with sweets, pay attention to what your mind is telling you. Notice your unkind thoughts. See if you can challenge or at least question them. See if you can find some evidence against them. See if you can simply forgive yourself for your mistakes and for being human like everyone else. Get off your back and on your side!
Find Other Forms Of Sweetness
Overeating sweets is often an attempt to give ourselves some form of sweetness. And it’s a good try! After all, if you are not getting sweetness from the way you speak to yourself, if you are not treating yourself sweetly in your daily actions and if you are not feeding yourself lovingly on a daily basis, then at least overeating sweets is some attempt (albeit, unsuccessful) to give yourself some sweetness in your life.
How about making a list of non-sugar-related ways you could give yourself sweetness? Perhaps a bath; a nap; a manicure; a massage; a good book; a visit with a friend; a day off of work to play, etc. As you improve on feeding yourself balanced, delicious and moderately-sized meals while also learning how to welcome your emotions and challenge your unkind mind, you truly can have your (piece of) cake and eat it, too!