Fill up on Gratitude this Season

End emotional eating with this simple tool

Fill up on Gratitude this season

The Holiday season is upon us. It is a time for connecting with family, warming ourselves around the communal fire or stove, sharing memories and good cheer. It is a time for gratitude. And it is one of the most difficult times of year for anyone struggling with their weight.

Many patients in our program report a history of emotional eating. For them, the additional stress of the holiday season may trigger over-eating or non-nutritive eating. One of the tools we commonly recommend for our patients is so basic and simple that it might be overlooked. That tool is gratitude.

                Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; a general state of thankfulness or appreciation.

The field of positive psychology has popularized the idea of gratitude as an effective tool to achieve happiness. It has been well studied for its ability to shift an individual’s focus from negative emotions such as resentment or envy to more positive emotions. It also creates a deliberate pause that can be useful to interrupt the rumination that runs like a soundtrack on a constant loop.  By interrupting that soundtrack, we are brought into the present and can make decisions in a state of mindfulness. Gratitude has been shown using MRI studies to cause changes in the brain that have a lasting effect. These changes are seen in the frontal lobe where decisions are made.

Several studies on gratitude have looked at the effect of writing letters of gratitude. Study participants were randomly assigned to either write thoughtfully about painful or difficult life events, write letters of gratitude to people who had been influential in their life or to do nothing. Their baseline levels of happiness and mental health was established and they were followed for 3 months. Those who wrote letters of gratitude showed the greatest improvements in their mental health and wellbeing even if they never sent the letters they had written and those improvements lasted and even increased long after the actual letter writing took place.

Other studies have examined the effect of keeping a gratitude journal, praying thankfully, meditating or even just thanking someone mentally without ever speaking or writing the words. All of these practices have shown to be beneficial although the practice of letter writing is the most well documented tool for improving well-being.

What else can gratitude do?

It has been demonstrated to decrease depression, improve sleep, increase self-esteem and reduce social comparison, improve resilience and decrease stress. Grateful people tend to report fewer aches and pains and to exercise more.

So, how can gratitude be used to control emotional eating?

Plan to use gratitude in several deliberate ways this holiday season. First, rely on the fact that gratitude can be a powerful, in-the-moment tool to interrupt and change your state of mind. You can use this to deliberately choose to avoid those situations that you know will be too tempting, like the office lunch room, where the donuts live.             

                Action plan: Think about all the times in your day when you are tempted to engage in emotional eating. Make a list. Now go through the list and imagine yourself in the situation. For each tempting situation, write down at least one thing that you can be grateful for in the situation or in the setting. For example: if you are often tempted to make a trip to the vending machine at 3:00 for an afternoon pick-me-up, imagine something about your workplace environment, your job or your co-workers that you can feel grateful for. Now when you encounter the situation you will have a plan in place to bring your attention to all the ways you are blessed and your need for a sweet snack will feel less compelling.

Another way you might use what we know about gratefulness to improve your control over emotional eating is to rely on the long-term effects of gratitude. The studies done on letter writing showed dramatic and lasting effects for this simple intervention. If writing a handful of letters to people that you are thankful for can improve your mood, your sleep, your resilience and your exercise routine, why wouldn’t you do it?

                Action plan: Go home tonight and write a letter to a person who has impacted your life. You can decide later whether to send the letter or not. It doesn’t matter. Tomorrow, do the same. Make a goal to write at least 3 letters. The positive effects  of this may not be immediately apparent, but they will increase over time.

Finally, make gratitude a part of your daily routine to amplify the benefit and help to dramatically change your mindset. Choose to either end your day with a few moments of gratitude journaling or perhaps to start your day with an intention of gratefulness. Your gratitude journal need be no more than a list of several things that you noticed throughout the day, small kindnesses, beauty that you encountered, or the warm kitten sitting on your lap. When you start your day with an intention to move through your day with gratitude, finding these small blessings becomes  easier.

When you attend all the holiday happenings and gatherings that often center around food, your sense of fullness, richness and abundance that comes from a grateful heart will go a long way toward directing your attention away from all the tempting foods you should avoid, away from a sense of deprivation toward a place of calm confidence around your food choices.

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