Are you Using Food to Cope?

Are you Using Food to Cope?
Is this you?
“I can’t stop eating” “I ate a whole pint of ice cream one night” “I used to visit coworkers when I took a break; now I visit the fridge.” “I’m afraid to run out, so, even though it makes me nervous, I’m going to the store a lot to stock up.” “I’m afraid to wear pants with buttons. I know I’m probably gaining weight.”  

There are also those who are experimenting with cooking, something they never had time or desire for in the past.  

Here are some things I have noticed in myself:

I feel hungry a lot. I have to ask myself if it’s hunger or anxiety.  I’m afraid of running out, since, when I do place an order from a store, many of my favorite foods are not available. So I’ve noticed old feelings of deprivation coming up. I have to stop myself from my desire to hoard since it would leave less for others. I am reminded of the period in 11th grade when my parents chained the refrigerator in an attempt to stop my weight gain. At the time, I reacted by going to the supermarket and buying a pint of ice cream or a bag of cookies each day after school. I believed I was trying to get back at them but now understand that bingeing was a normal reaction to feeling deprived (a pattern I repeated for years with my diet/binge cycle.)   Now I respond differently. When I am able to get what I want, I try to experience as much satisfaction as possible. So I’m slowing down, eating more mindfully, making the good taste last as long as possible. I offer appreciation to the food for how it’s nourishing my body. And a sense of gratitude and connection to all the people who made it possible to get it to me – the farmers, the packagers, the truckers, the people at the market, and now, the people who are shopping and delivering it to me at their own risk.    

The Need for Structure

Without the structure we used to have to our day, many of us have gotten into compulsive or mindless eating.  We all need structure – children have meltdowns when their structure is disrupted. Adults also feel unsettled, restless, logy, more emotional. This is exactly what we don’t need when we’re trying to deal with change and uncertainty. So how can we create a structure that balances work and family life, household chores, rest breaks, fun – and nourishing food?    

Try to Step Back from Reacting and See the Bigger Picture I realized that one of the reasons that I write these articles is that it gives me an opportunity to step back from reacting and see the bigger picture. That’s one of the things I enjoy about doing therapy, asking the questions that help clients reevaluate how they’re living and how they want to live.   So I’m asking you – would you like to redesign the way you’re living and eating so you are most productive, most at ease?   One of my clients, in trying to adjust to working from home, noticed she was snacking all day. She had lost her routine. So she recommitted herself to 3 meals a day with a limited number of snacks. She is making a snack tray each morning for the day. She can eat them whenever she wants. And when they’re gone, that’s it for the day. That’s her structure.  

This is mine:

•I prefer to eat small meals frequently, partly because I don’t like how I feel after large meals. And my blood sugar becomes unbalanced if I don’t eat frequently.  

•I’ve given in to sugary snacks between meals a few times, but it sets me off into that cycle of wanting more. Plus I’m aware that sugar (and stress) lowers our immune system. So I’m trying to eat regular meals with a balance of protein/fats/carbs to keep my blood sugar even.  

• And if I want a treat, I eat it at the end of the meal, as dessert, when it doesn’t set me off. And if I eat is slowly and mindfully, I’m generally satisfied with a small amount.  

But I don’t think there is one right way to eat. Other than making sure our cells get the nourishment they need, it’s about finding what works best for us. Which foods, amounts, frequency of eating makes you feel best in your body, with balanced emotions and energy? And can you create a plan to make it easier to achieve that?     

Emotional Eating It’s said that we make 200 choices about food each day! If we don’t have a plan and structure, it’s harder not to succumb to our urge to use food to manage emotions or as a filler between tasks. Most of us use food to cope, some more than others – and we currently have a lot to cope with. I shared some ideas and resources in my last 2 newsletters. And if your pants are getting tight and you’d like to read my 2019 newsletter Are your Pants too Tight, please email me at  

Here are a couple of other strategies for dealing with cravings:

The next time you are needing food to help you feel better, ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how distressed you’re feeling. If it’s high, like a 7+ (in other words, it’s not just a reaction to the thought that you want food or passing the kitchen), I’m going to suggest that you ask yourself what exactly you would like. Try to find the best match – not what you think would be an acceptable choice. If you want cookies or chips or ice cream or cheese, that’s fine. Even if the ‘food police’ part of you is screaming that you can’t. Right now you need it. It’s medicine. So, put a small amount on a plate (you can get more later if you still need it) and take it to your table or your couch. And I’d like the ‘nurturing’ part of you to feed it to ‘the one who needs it,’ the one who is in distress, who needs to be comforted. Perhaps even speaking gently “I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset,” the way you might for a young child. And let the distressed part of you feel nurtured and comforted by the food itself and by the act of being fed.  

And, if you would like me to guide you, I’m offering all of you a free copy of the CD (in mp3 format) that goes with my book “Conscious Eating, Conscious Living; A Practical Guide to Making Peace with Food & your Body.” There are 5 tracks of guided meditations, including one where I guide you in eating consciously, and one called “Coping with Feelings without Using Food,” Just email me at for a copy of the mp3.  

There is one more track that I’d recommend you listen to. It’s called “The Body Speaks” where I ask your body questions about how it feels and what it needs. It’s always important that we take care of ourselves, but now more than ever, for our emotional state of mind and also to keep our immune system as healthy as possible. Dr. Mark Hyman, functional medicine doctor, teacher, and author, has an article for building our immune system on his website, A Functional Medicine Approach to Covid-19.  Take good care of yourself. And let me know if I can be of any guidance and support.  

All my best, Barbara
Barbara L. Holtzman, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist and lifestyle coach in Providence and Wakefield RI. She is the author of the workbook and guided-imagery CD “Conscious Eating, Conscious Living; A Practical Guide to Making Peace with Food & your Body” Barbara is a nationally acclaimed speaker and leads workshops at colleges, hospitals,women’s expos, wellness centers and professional conferences. She found her own natural body weight through her “Making Peace with Food & Your Body” approach.    

Contact Information:  
Barbara Holtzman 401-789-0777