Your brain has two parts, often called the emotional and logical brain or the chimp and human brain, or the unconscious and conscious 1. I like to call one the toddler brain (ruled by emotions) and the other the Mum brain (the logical brain).
Different parts of our brains are in charge at different times and they have different roles. The logical brain allows for long term planning. The emotional brain takes over when you face an intense situation – this is the part of the brain which would help you run away quickly if you were being chased by a dangerous animal 1.
Take an example of a toddler wanting ice cream and Mum saying no. Emotionally, the toddler wants ice cream. Mum is acting as the logical brain as she knows that too much ice cream is not healthy. Sometimes the Mum will say no immediately without really thinking about it. Traditional diets are a bit like this. Your Mum brain is constantly telling your inner toddler that they can’t eat what they want, without explaining why. When you say no to a toddler, without any explanation, what is that toddler likely to do? They are quite likely to scream and have a meltdown. This leads to inner distress, which could be viewed as that toddler screaming inside your head. That is why restrictive diets can be so hard, they add to inner conflict in your mind.
So how do we prevent our inner toddler screaming every time we want to eat something? The first step is taking a moment to pause to think whether the toddler is hungry. Sometimes they will be and sometimes they will not. It is the same for you. Asking this question creates a pause; it means you are not saying no or yes immediately. This short pause gives you the space to decide whether an ice cream is the best course of action. Sometimes a pause is all we need to rethink an unhealthy eating decision. This is because it prompts you to think about the situation before acting. Rather than being ruled by your inner toddler, the Mum brain is taking charge and making the decision. Realising that you have the power to make an informed decision is a major part of having a healthy mind and body.
Much like an actual toddler, your inner toddler isn’t always hungry and needs a lot more than just food for a happy life. Of course, your inner toddler may be hungry, and if so, it might be fine to give them the ice cream.
Did you say ‘no’ to your inner toddler without explaining why, or without really listening to them? If so, there is then a risk of that toddler screaming at you. If What happens next? It probably depends what else you did and why they asked for ice cream in the first place. What did your inner toddler really need? Did you take the time to find out?
What does your inner toddler really want when they ask you for ice cream when they are not hungry? Much like an actual toddler, they could want attention, a cuddle or they could be bored. It could also be many other things. Every child wants to be seen, heard and to matter. All children need love and kindness; your inner toddler is no different. Are you ignoring your inner toddler by constantly telling it not to eat when it wants to (like many restrictive diets)? An actual toddler would not understand why, and nor does your inner toddler. Do you take the time to listen to why your inner toddler has asked for food, to hear their worries or give them comfort? Sometimes, all we need to relieve emotional eating is some inner listening and being kind to ourselves. Try viewing yourself with kindness 2. Imagining giving yourself a hug can also be very powerful.
Many of us are stuck in a weight gain mindset, fuelled by lack of communication and kindness between our inner toddler and Mum brain. Within in this mindset, we tend to eat to block out thoughts and feelings in emotional eating, stress-eating or comfort eating.
Stress-eating or emotional eating occurs when people eat, not because of hunger, but because of other feelings and emotions.
Emotions can be so strong that they take over hunger and fullness cues.
Food can be used to block out these strong, often negative emotions.
This often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Stress or other emotions lead to overeating, which leads to shame and guilt, which increase stress and other ‘negative’ feelings and then the cycle starts again.
More than 1 in 3 people use food to cope with stress, and most of those emotionally eat every week 3. After a stressful meeting at work, I used to crave pastries. I did not know at the time, but I wasn’t hungry. I was dwelling on having not said the ‘right’ thing, feeling judged, and being really stressed. I would bury these feelings using a pastry, rather than letting myself experience them at the time. This means that these feelings never go away but get stored deep inside our toddler mind, where they fester. Of course, I didn’t feel better after the pastry, I felt worse. I now had extra feelings of ‘feeling fat’ because of the pastry, which fed back into the negative cycle of using food to mask what was really going on inside. I was stuck in a cycle of weight gain. I didn’t know it then, but I was the one who was trapping myself in that cycle of yoyo dieting.
How do we break this weight gain cycle? Well the first step, as discussed above, is creating a pause when your Mum brain can decide whether your inner toddler is hungry. If your inner toddler is not (just) hungry, the next step is to work out what your inner really toddler needs. This is about taking the time to listen to your thoughts, explore them and then being kind to yourself about those feelings (giving your inner toddler a cuddle). Mindful moments can help with this.
Mindful moments can help weight loss by:
Making space: creating space so you can choose to eat because of hunger and not because of other feelings
Listening: allowing your inner toddler to be heard, so you can avoid ‘internal screaming’
Acceptance: noticing and accepting your feelings can reduce emotional eating and stress levels
Kindness: being kind to yourself helps you naturally want to eat healthily, as you learn to treat yourself as kindly as you can
How to interrupt the weight gain cycle using mindful moments:
You do not need a guided mindfulness programme to start having mindful moments. For many people, all that is needed is taking a mindful moment when you start to think about food.
Notice that you are thinking about food or want to eat.
Take a couple of deep breaths and close your eyes if you like.
Ask yourself: “Am I hungry?”
Listen to the answer
Be open to noticing any other feelings
You could try following these feelings as they move around your body 4
Try not to judge your feelings as good or bad, just notice them
Why mindful moments work
Just noticing this weight gain cycle is the first step to stopping it
Sometimes just creating a pause before automatically eating can be enough to allow your Mum brain to step in and make a healthy choice.
Using mindful moments to listen and accept your feelings about food without judgment can be very powerful for easing emotional eating
Learning to experience feelings as they occur, rather than blocking them out with food, can improve your relationship lead to weight gain without the need for restrictive diets
Many of us have spent our lifetime pushing away feelings and ignoring our inner toddler, it can take practice to understand their language. When it feels difficult, this is a good time to practice being kind to yourself. The more practice you do, the easier it will become.
When you start listening to your inner toddler, you could be surprised at what you find. I have always experienced anxiety and I thought that was all it was. When I started really listening to my inner toddler, I uncovered lots of things hidden under that anxiety. I always got nervous before work meetings. Some level of anxiety is healthy, but I used to get so nervous that it actually stopped my mind working properly 1. When I started to listen to that anxiety, I realised that I thought I should be ‘perfect’ (which is impossible). As I could never be ‘perfect’, I often felt disappointed, frustrated, annoyed, inadequate, excluded, and lonely – and just from a meeting. It was all these things I was trying to cover up with that pastry. When I managed to name these feelings, I realised many stemmed from feeling vulnerable and isolated and reminded me of being ‘left-out’ at school. A lot can be lurking under our emotional eating, and this is just one personal example. It can be overwhelming uncovering all these things, and it is sensible to start slowly and have support from a non-judgemental trusted friend, trained coach, counsellor, or health professional if feelings start becoming too intense.
We often do not talk about our feelings so our vocabulary of feelings can be limited. If you want to explore what feelings lie beneath your food cravings, try to name them. This helps work out how the physical sensations of feelings (like butterflies, flushing and brain fog) translate to words. You can start by asking yourself if the feeling lies within one of the ‘major’ feeling groups. Ask yourself, is it linked to anger, sadness, fear, disgust, power or happiness? In other words, thinking through a list of feelings can help you to realise what your inner toddler is trying to tell you. Just naming these feelings can give you a clue to where they come from. You can then let them float to the surface, give their message so they can float away. Your inner toddler will probably keep screaming at you until they finally get what they want, which is usually for you to listen, hear them and be kind.
1. Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New edition. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; 1996.
2. Neff K. Self Compassion. Yellow Kite; 2011.
3. Stress and eating. https://www.apa.org. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating
4. Popovic N. Personal Synthesis: A Complete Guide to Personal Knowledge. PWBC; 2005.
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Dr Kirsten Keighley
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The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.