How to Get a Grip on PCOS-Related Emotional Eating
When you’ve got PCOS, food cravings, mood swings, and emotional overeating are often constants in your life. There are good reasons for this (hello, hormones!), but what matters is less what the reasons are and more what are you going to do about it? This post is a follow-up to Martha’s post on Eating Triggers.
So many things contribute to feeling out of control with your food, yet managing your food is such a critical task when you have PCOS, both for weight management and mood management. Stress (which affects us so much more than the average woman who doesn’t have PCOS), a history of trauma, hormonal irregularities (daily life, in other words, when you’ve got PCOS), digestive issues, emotional styles and patterns, and even financial issues can all be factors that set us off and lead to problems with emotional overeating.
Here are five things you can do to help get a grip on PCOS-related emotional eating:
1. Have a plan. Eating all the wrong things, or too much of the wrong things, happens when you’re feeling weak, vulnerable, and hungry. There are many styles of eating plans, and you will have to experiment with timing, snacks vs. meals, how much to eat, what times to eat, and so on. I know it’s work, but seriously, have a plan. Even if you deviate a little from the plan, it’s likely to be better than what you would otherwise do impulsively. For example:
No plan: “Let’s grab some burgers at the drive-through (and some fries, and a chocolate shake, while you’re at it)!”
Result: Overeating, bloating, nausea, and misery after the initial hit of sugar, carbs, fat, and sodium wears off.
Better plan: Always have a balanced meal’s worth of food readily available. Sometimes it’s a random little “kitchen sink” functional meal like half a can of tuna, unpeeled carrot sticks (so it’s the whole carrot that I just grabbed out of a bag of organic carrots and washed), a container of leftover sautéed mushrooms, some overripe figs, and three dark chocolate covered almonds. Not glamorous, but nutritious, balanced, and suitable for my PCOS body. Yours too!
Result: Happy stomach, happy brain, zero guilt, and money saved to boot.
No plan: “I don’t know what (or where, or when) we’re going to eat. Let’s just wing it!”
Result: Fast food, something from 7-11, a gut bomb of a meal at a rib joint that sounded and smelled really seductive in the moment, or a large “everything” pizza to go. See above for miserable outcomes.
Better plan: Hop on your smart phone, research “health restaurants near (destination)” and suggest one of those. Most people will follow your suggestion, and be glad they didn’t have to figure it out.
Result: You’re happier for sticking closer to your plan, and you don’t feel gross all day. You feel balanced and fully engaged. You enjoy your activity and your friends a whole lot more. Your friends are a little healthier too, and maybe even grateful.
The bottom line is, when your blood sugar and/or serotonin levels dip, your mood swings, and your hunger goes out of control, leading to very poor decision-making in the moment, as the tricky, survival-oriented part of your brain screams for instant glucose to fuel its operations. Out-game the brain by giving it what it needs before it gets so demanding!
2. Slow down. The more you rush around, being busy, and overriding nature (needing to pee for three hours, getting by on five hours of sleep, skipping meals), the more likely you are to lose control. You’re too frazzled, and you literally can’t think straight – you don’t have the energy or the physical resources. Try slowing down (this points back to having a plan, as described above), being more thoughtful, and see how that translates into better choices and less “uncontrollable” impulsive food-related urges.
3. Ground yourself. As with slowing down, grounding is a choice you make. You can be flighty and disorganized, or calm and centered. Grounding exercises help you come back into your body, so you can listen to its true needs (because let’s be real, while Caramel Pecan Praline ice cream can feel like a true “need” in the moment, you know it’s more likely that what you actually need is a piece of fruit). You can ground yourself quickly by interrupting the cycle of thinking that leads you astray. Try one of these methods when you start to spin out of control.
-Stick your hands in a bowl of ice water.
-Take a bite of sharp citrus, like lemon. (Bonus points if you post it on social media and hashtag it #LemonFaceChallenge for #PCOS – see pic!)
-Name the objects in the room slowly: green couch, blue rug, elderly cat, broken lamp, etc
4. Stop avoiding emotions. Have you ever noticed how desperately you want cookies when you’re feeling sad? We have a tendency to label our emotions as good or bad, positive or negative. Emotional overeating often stems from a powerful urge to avoid the so-called negative emotions: anger, sadness, fear, loneliness, etc. We stuff what we don’t want to feel – pure avoidance. Sometimes it even goes so far as eating until you’re in pain, because that’s a pain you understand and can justify.
There shouldn’t be a judgment about feelings, but when there is, it’s important to step back and take a deeper look. The more you avoid, the louder that negative thought becomes. When you pause, drop down deeply into your body, and allow your mind a little space to explore the feeling, it magically begins to dissipate. By walking into it, you walk through it. In the process, cravings for carbs, sweets, and other foods tend to disappear easily
5. Keep a food/mood journal. Sometimes, a quick technique isn’t enough. In that case, try keeping a food/mood journal for a week, where you record the day, date, time, what was going on, who you were with, how you were feeling before and after you ate, and of course, what and how much you ate. Examine it for patterns. Share it with your therapist or dietician if you have one, so that you can start developing strategies to overcome your own personal causes of PCOS-related emotional overeating.
You have a lot more power than you may think you do to manage your food, mood, and health. Try some of these techniques, and let me know how they work, or what’s still hard
Dr. Gretchen Kubacky is a health psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She is known as “The PCOS Psychologist” and founder of PCOSwellness.com. She provides psychotherapy (California only), coaching, and consultation to an international community of women with PCOS. Join the PCOS Psychology group on Facebook for more information about managing emotional overeating, depression, stress, mood swings, and more.
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.