Can you be an emotional eater and have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)? It is certainly possible and the two are probably connected for many people out there. Most of us diagnosed with a form of IBD do not find out until later in life- well after our eating habits have formed and cravings for certain foods developed. Before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I definitely was an emotional eater; I ate when something great happened, and I ate when I was depressed or had a bad day. Those emotional eating habits don’t just disappear after an IBD diagnosis. And despite the very negative consequences of emotional eating on your IBD, it is a hard habit to break. The connection between the brain and your gut is incredibly powerful and one that willpower cannot always overcome.
Despite knowing how I should eat with Crohn’s Disease and foods I should ALWAYS avoid….I am human. I make mistakes; bad days happen, emotions run high, and I have my weak moments of making bad dietary decisions for not only my Crohn’s but for my overall health. I have become much better at controlling my emotional eating during positive or celebratory times. Birthdays, holidays, or any special event had been an excuse to gorge on all things unhealthy. I no longer do this for a few reasons: first, I have learned to appreciate days that I have no digestive problems. I cherish every single day that I am able to eat normally, suffer no digestive consequences, and feel good about myself. There is no food on this planet worth ruining a birthday, holiday, etc. because I just had to eat it. Special days I do something else instead- spend time with friends, family, or my boyfriend. Maybe I’ll get a massage, manicure, or just sit in a coffee shop reading Vogue with a hot tea.
My success with bad days, however, is not so good. If I’ve had a long, frustrating, stressful day at the lab I am susceptible to all sorts of bad choices. It is usually compounded with the fact I haven’t eaten all day because I’ve been so stressed and busy. By the time the end of the day comes, I am starving, miserable, and craving anything chocolatey, fatty, and comforting. While I am still working on changing my comforting technique for a bad day from food to something healthier, I am planning about how to limit my chances of slipping up in these vulnerable moments.
Here are 3 of my tips to prevent emotional eating with IBD:
1) Don’t give yourself an opportunity to emotionally eat. Access to desserts are limited in my apartment and at work. I never have a box of cookies, a cake, or anything sitting around. If I really am craving something chocolatey, I have a go-to chocolate cake that I can make. It is not healthy on any level, but usually the extra steps of having to actually bake a cake put off the idea of eating one.
2) Don’t deprive yourself. It is a tricky balance between this tip and the first one. You want to isolate yourself away from temptation, but at the same time not be so extreme as to be miserable and feel completely deprived, leaving you susceptible to a binge session on a box of chocolate chip cookies. I allow myself treats throughout the week, especially if things are really difficult to prevent episodes of emotional eating and/or feeling deprived and miserable. Whether its a small piece of dark chocolate or half a chai latte, give yourself a little break every once in a while if you really feel you need one. It will save you misery and future problems in the long term.
3) Moderation. This tip and the second are closely linked. If I am itching for an emotional eating session, I give myself options that are not going to completely destroy my colon or make me feel guilty. For example, I usually buy the snack or bite size pieces of chocolate at the grocery store. I find snickers or milky ways are particularly good because they satisfy my chocolate craving without the IBD problems. It must be something about the size and maybe their mix of ingredients, but I do not have bloating or colon spasms or any bathroom issues with these bite size pieces. Now, of course, I don’t mean consume the entire bag of snack size snickers….but one or two won’t kill you. They provide a fix for my emotional eating without destroying my GI tract. Win-win!
It’s not easy changing eating habits, especially when they are so closely linked with emotions. However, small adjustments and planning obstacles in advance can help sway those times when you are at your weakest. Sometimes it is not enough to have the knowledge or even experiences of what happens when you give into cravings with IBD. Sometimes your best defense is yourself- planning in advance and tricking your mind (and your gut) about what you really want in this moment.