We all have our bad habits: eating a candy bar every day after lunch, say, or grabbing a soda when the mid-afternoon slump hits. These sound normal enough—but if these habits have a psychological motivation (say, you use soda to combat stress), they can be infinitely more destructive. Melissa Costello, a certified clinical nutritionist and author of The Clean in 14 Detox, calls these emotion/food connections "sabotaging addictive patterns," or SAP.
The danger: SAP can form a sort of psychological goo that holds you back from achieving your weight-loss or healthy-living goals. "Sabotaging addictive patterns are what keep people on the diet rollercoaster," says Costello. She's observed this with her own clients time and time again over the years: "They would stay on track for a month, then throw it all away," she says. "And when they throw it away, they really throw it away, versus saying, 'I didn't do so great today. I'm going to get back on track tomorrow.'"
In these moments of dietary destruction, people often resort to patterns like emotional eating or just mindless munching in front of the TV—all because they think they have to perfectly adhere to their plan or not follow it at all. "We need something, and we turn to food for that instead of really figuring out what it is inside of us that we need," says Costello. "When women are unhappy in their lives or they have a lack of self-worth, they turn to food a lot."
Specifically, start taking notes about your relationship with food. "Write out the struggles you have with food, then look at what the payoff is—because there is really always a payoff to our patterning," says Costello. (For example, the "reward" of chowing down may be avoiding feelings of anxiety or worthlessness.) Then remind yourself that food can't actually keep you safe or protect you from unwanted feelings—it's just a temporary fix. Another journaling exercise: Jot down three excuses or behaviors that sabotage your healthy-eating efforts.
Costello created guided meditations to accompany her book, which readers have repeatedly told her were the most life-changing part of the plan. "They really feel there is internal change happening," she says. "They're not wanting the 'bad' foods as much." You'll have to purchase the book to get the recorded meditations—or you can try leading yourself through a couple on your own, aiming for 10 minutes in the a.m. and 20 minutes before bed. Try these mantras: "I am strong," "I am courageous," "I love to move my body," or "Healthy eating is a big part of my life."
Pause Before You Eat
Before you dive into your meal, pause to ask yourself, "Am I really hungry? Or am I bored? Emotional? Is what I'm eating in line with my goals?" "When you start to become aware and notice your patterns, then you can start to make change," says Costello. "But when you don't know they're there, you can't—there is nothing you can really do about them." This simple moment of silence before a meal helps you focus on the experience of eating, including the emotions you bring to the table.