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Four common eating challenges

Michelle May


We received over 220 responses to our question “What are your two most difficult eating challenges right now?” on this blog post, on Facebook, and by email. As I was reading about your eating challenges, I could hear your frustration and desire to resolve these issues.

Clearly you are not alone! And I want you to know that while your eating challenges may sometimes feel “crazy” and difficult to solve, these are exactly the kinds of eating problems we’ve been helping people with for over twenty years!

I want to help you solve your biggest eating challenges!

The last few years had me thinking about what’s really important and how I want to spend these few remaining years of my career and reading all of your eating challenges helped me realize something really important…

Although we offer many options to help you, ranging from books, online classes, workshops, retreats, and a support community, many of you need a deep dive into the specific areas where you are struggling.

Let me explain what I noticed: Your eating challenges seem to cluster in four different areas.

(Read more about how our Eat Mindfully, Live Vibrantly Program addresses these challenges using the BEST of our 25 years of experience helping people overcome their most difficult eating challenges! )

Four common eating challenges

While there were many different eating challenges, there are four main areas people are struggling with right now. Let me share the four most common challenges along with the signs and examples you shared.

Common Challenge #1

Listening to and trusting your body wisdom

We were all born with the instinctive ability to know when we need fuel, to recognize when we’ve eaten enough, to eat what we love without being afraid of losing control, to enjoy eating enough to stay tuned in to the experience, and to stop when eating doesn’t hold our attention anymore.

Many of you shared challenges that indicate you are having difficulty with recognizing, listening to, and/or trusting your body wisdom. In many cases, you are having trouble using hunger and satisfaction to guide you to feed yourself in an enjoyable way that doesn’t leave you feeling regretful.

How many of these problems sound familiar to you?

  • You have trouble identifying or using your body’s signals of hunger and fullness to guide your eating. Bob says his challenge is simply, “Am I hungry?” and Nicole’s is “not confusing other things for hunger, like being tired or thirsty.”
  • You’re not sure how to tell the difference between physical hunger and “head hunger” (other reasons for eating), like Cheryl who struggles with “assessing whether I’m hungry or thirsty.”
  • You aren’t feeding yourself consistently, so you become overly hungry.
  • You eat for many other reasons when you’re not hungry—boredom, stress, fatigue, thirst, emotions, etc. Kat posted, “When my eating takes a compulsive turn, it’s not for hunger. It’s often want vs hunger, though I’ve worked on this.”
  • You think about food all the time, even when you aren’t hungry. Kris says, “Food seems to be on the forefront of my mind,” and Mondonna says, “I am constantly thinking about food.” Tatiana posted that she is “unable to stop obsessive thoughts about food and weight.”
  • You recognize old messages, like “clean your plate,” but haven’t been able to stop them.
  • You struggle with knowing when (and how) to stop eating. Kristina says she struggles with “finding the right amount to eat for my body when it’s a food I don’t usually get.”
  • You are “food suggestible,” like Doneen: “Once I think I want something to eat, I find it very hard to focus on my body to tell if I’m really hungry.”
  • You find yourself grazing throughout the day (especially difficult during the pandemic), like Phillipa and Cheryl who struggle with “grazing while working from home” and Kat who said, “Working from home has made snacking very accessible” and Norman who posted, “While working at home there is opportunity to ‘run downstairs and pick up something,’ usually cookies or crackers and cheese.”
  • You have high-risk times for eating, especially evenings, like Sheila’s late night snacking and Geoff who eats at night in bed. Lu says, “My biggest challenge is getting from supper till bed time without bingeing on sweets” and Judy says, “when my husband goes to bed early and I am by myself.” (And this one from Jensine made me laugh out loud: “Eating in the evening! My mind says no and my body does it anyway. Oh. And butter…”)
  • You forget to pause before, during, and/or after eating. Chris posted, “it’s hard to slow down and check in with myself when I’m eating to make sure I’m not full and still eating.”
  • You sometimes don’t feel satisfied after eating.
  • You eat too fast, like Terri, who said, “I have always eaten very quickly so I eat much more than I need at a meal before I register I am full.”
  • You eat mindlessly, like Jen who says she’s “not paying attention to and enjoying what I’m eating” and is “multi-tasking while eating (working, reading, watching tv) instead of taking a break to enjoy the food. This prevents me from noticing the “I’m full” cues.”
  • You’ve tried dieting to manage your eating, but similar to Pat, “cannot face the rest of my life on a diet, but I have never been able to trust myself without logging everything I eat.”

Can you relate to any of these? Please comment below.

Common Challenge #2

Eating in a balanced, non-restrictive way

From your input, it is easy to see how many are struggling under the weight of diet culture! There’s a tug-of-war between wanting to “eat healthy” and feeling out of control with certain foods.

See how many of these “symptoms” you can identify with:

  • You crave sugar (and other foods, but many of you specifically mentioned sugar, like Amy who posted, “SUGAR. sugar. Did I mention, sugar???” Carla wrote, “I have the worst sweet tooth and I struggle saying no to baked goods.” Rosie says she’s worried because “I love sweets! This is challenging right now because Halloween and the holidays are coming and the candy corn and other fall sweets are coming out!”
  • You are trying to eat “more healthy” or want to make changes to old habits (such as increasing your vegetables, decreasing soda) but have trouble being consistent. Karen said she as trouble “staying the course. Two weeks is about as long as I seem to be able to make changes before I fall back on old habits and comfort foods.” Kris is struggling with “staying motivated to eat healthy when the world is such an uncertain place.”
  • You are afraid of losing control when you eat certain foods (especially foods you feel you shouldn’t eat). Ann said, “Once I start eating the sweets, I cannot stop until I finish the whole thing.”
  • You feel “addicted” to sweets and carbs. Anne feels that “today people’s brains are hooked to the taste of highly rewarding foods.” Colleen says, “When I am stressed out, anxious, tired, bored, lonely, etc., I crave sugar and junk food. This is the first thing I want when I get home from work even if I am not hungry. I know I am addicted to junk food and I know it is really bad for me!” Sarah says, “I feel like I HAVE to have something sweet. Could be a donut, piece of cake, ice cream, just something! I believe I am addicted to sugar and have no idea how or where to start to reverse this. I feel so helpless.”
  • You attempt to limit certain foods, like Sérgio who wants to “stay away from sweets,” and Leo who says he’s “struggling with staying away from so many carbs, mainly flour.” Monique says she’s trying to “stay away from chocolate and pastries. If they are in my line of view, I’m gonna snag one up.”
  • You are confused about nutrition because it has become so complicated. Julie described it well: “So many conflicting ideas about healthy eating; I’m more confused than ever.” And Danielle said there’s “too much information from many sources and I can’t decide what to do.”
  • You tend to label foods as “good” or “bad” (and feel bad when you eat what you “shouldn’t). For example, Suzanne says she has difficulty with “portion control with high calorie foods like pizza or ice cream that derail my best intentions” and Debra has difficulty “convincing myself the pear is the choice that will help me live the vibrant life I desire versus the Cheezies I really want.”
  • You have trouble with portion sizes, making balanced choice, and distraction when eating out. Nikki says, “Overeating when eating out is a struggle. I always want to enjoy a little of everything, so I get a bigger meal than I can eat, then feel guilty for not cleaning my plate.” Dianne shared her concern that “now that things are opening up again, I’m feeling all the stress that comes along with social eating.”
  • You’re having difficulty with meal planning and prep because you are busy, tired, or feeling unmotivated. One of Lisa’s challenges is “having dinner early, ready to eat so I don’t graze aimlessly at the end of the day.”
  • You have a medical condition (or symptoms) that you are trying to manage by changing your eating. Kristi who has diabetes said, “I know the plan, but can’t stay on the plan. I can tell you all the tricks.” Brittany, who has multiple food intolerances shared, “I’m absolutely miserable trying to manage this. It’s literally a never ending struggle, and one I’m failing at. I would do anything to fix this.”
  • You have difficulty navigating the eating habits and preferences of other family members. Cheryl wrote that one of her challenges is “resisting/ignoring the ‘junk’ other family members have within my eyesight.”
  • You have trouble balancing your eating. Courtney describes this as a challenge with “listening to what my body needs vs. what I think I want.”
  • You don’t want to choose “healthy” foods when other options are available, like Mar who finds herself “reaching for what I’m craving (chocolate, tortilla chips and cheese, chips) rather than eating something that will likely satiate and nourish me (protein, complex carbs, vegetables or even just a full meal).”
  • You have trouble breaking free of diet culture. Dianne said, “I’m new to mindful eating, so still trying to get out of the diet mentality.” Leslie has a “deprivation mindset from years of dieting.” Lisa says her challenge is changing her mindset, unlearning dieting, not getting sucked back into the diet thinking, and “trying to keep the restrictive eating from taking over and making rules.” Tan posted that her challenge is “diet culture and diet habits that keep creeping back in.” Jean struggles with “the desire to lose weight, go on a diet, then binge first.”

Can you relate to any of these? Please comment below.

Common Challenge #3

Coping with emotional eating

Not surprisingly, using food to avoid and cope with emotions is particularly common. The good news is that many of you recognize you are doing this; the challenge is that many don’t know what to do about it.

Do you struggle with any of these issues?

  • You eat when you’re under stress. Gayle said, “It’s been a coping mechanism for most of my life.” Mary said that between the pandemic, hurricane Ida, and a diagnosis of cancer, “I am having a hard time.” (Who wouldn’t?)
  • You eat because you’re bored, like Kim who struggles with “eating when I am stressed or bored but not even hungry.” (Ironically, although stress and boredom are opposites, they are the two most common triggers for emotional eating!) Chris snacks “out of boredom and anxiety.” Steven describes himself: “I am a bored-eater.”
  • You eat to avoid doing something (I call this procrastin-eating). Kayli says, “I tend to snack when I’m not hungry, usually as a distraction from other things like studying and homework that I don’t really want to be doing.” Ironically, Katie, a teacher, is also “trying not to use eating as a delaying tactic from unpleasant situations/actions that I need to do… like grading.”
  • You eat for a reward. Jennine struggles with “wanting to ‘treat’ myself in the evenings as I relax from a stressful day,” and Wendy, who calls it “‘entitled eating,’ where I say to myself that I deserve this treat.” Anita who says she “treats food as my reward and my comfort.”
  • You eat for distraction and comfort. (Paula called this “diversion eating.”) Tatiana uses food “to distract and soothe myself.” Emilie posted on Facebook, “The pandemic has been very hard. I am back to eating to soothe myself and for entertainment. Those don’t feel healthy, but I’ve lost so much of what I had to soothe and entertain myself.”
  • You eat to calm anxiety. Marge posted on Facebook, “Since COVID has surged again, I find myself eating to calm my anxiety.”
  • You struggle with binge eating, like Ruth who’s struggling with “binge eating when I am feeling strong emotions.” Bena wrote, “I gave up dieting one year ago. It has been a hard, but rewarding journey. I’m getting better at listening to my hunger cues and asking myself ‘does this really taste good’. I sometimes think about my past binges and realize how dysfunctional my life was.” Darlene wrote, “I’m a binge eater. After months of healthy eating I find myself slipping back into these old destructive eating patterns.”
  • You are aware you use food for emotional regulation but aren’t sure what else to do. Catherine said she struggles with “emotional eating especially an upset with families or husband; I have to learn better ways to deal with it rather than eating!” Esther said, “At the end of the day its really not the eating but I don’t know how to process my emotions in a healthy way.”
  • You find it difficult to pause before reaching for food. Shannon describes, “those moments when I want to eat and can’t get my brain to slow down enough to ask why. I feel like I’m watching myself and wondering why I can’t stop.” Colleen’s challenge is “to take the time to stop and think instead of binging when I get overwhelmed with life or when I’m tired. I just binge without thinking and then it’s too late.”
  • Paulette who has made a tremendous amount of progress in healing binge and emotional eating says that while she is not overeating all that often anymore, she continues to discover new “invisible walls” that lead to using food to soothe her brain.
  • You eat secretly (or differently in private than you do in public).Julie, a bariatric patient and nurse wrote that working in an environment that is hyperfocused on food, calories, protein, and dieting “has caused my ‘secret eating’ issues to resurface (I have done this since childhood). I have to eat exceptionally well out in the open, but when I have a minute, I’m sneaking chocolate and chips.”
  • You don’t have other ways to calm your emotions or shift your mood. Tracey says she’s trying to “find other ways to boost my mood but seem to always return to food.” Mar said, “I reach for food as the solution and I’ll keep eating because I’m not feeling better and I think more food will get me there. I could even practice mindfulness to help cope with the discomfort but I don’t.” On Facebook, Tobi posted that it’s hard to “find a replacement behavior that is as good as food.”

Can you relate to any of these? Please comment below.

Common Challenge #4

Self-Care and living your big, vibrant life

Some of issues we work with in mindful eating coaching are (as one of my clients said), “eating adjacent” meaning it isn’t about the food, but all the other issues that come up. When people struggle with balance, coping skills, and self-care, they are more vulnerable to turning to food.

More important, they aren’t able to live the big, vibrant life they crave! That makes these issues extremely important to uncover and resolve.

Here are some of the common “eating adjacent” issue you shared:

  • You have difficulty with self-care. Anne wrote, “During COVID I struggled with discerning whether some of my eating habits were ‘self care’ or something else.” Kim says she struggles “when I have a little time to myself. I could never figure out why I like to indulge at these times when I should be celebrating the rare “me time” as a busy mom that I so crave. But I think I’m seeking pleasure/relaxation and haven’t otherwise identified better options. (Aha moment here!)”
  • You are having trouble with life balance. Tammy said, “My most difficult challenge is time. I know I need to practice what I preach, but I am finding myself TOO busy! Some days, too busy to breathe and let go.” Melody shared that she struggles with “trying to make time to walk away from my desk and eat a healthy lunch and take a walk.”
  • You have difficulty making your needs a priority, like Eva who struggles with emotional eating: “As a caregiver, I have difficulty prioritizing my needs.” Ann is struggling with “clarifying what’s good for me, and caring rather than just soothing myself during a difficult time.”
  • You are dealing with weight and body image struggles. Julie said, “I don’t like how easily winded I get sometimes or how I look in clothing, but I struggle to really care about what I put in my body as fuel.”
  • You are having trouble with sleep and exhaustion. One healthcare worker said, “With COVID gaining speed again I am totally exhausted when I get home at night. I eat too much at night. My body is so out of whack that I am only get maybe 2 or 3 hours sleep a night.”
  • You struggle with adding physical activity to your life. Blue said, “I’m too tired to exercise even though I have a treadmill right in my living room.”
  • You question your self-worth, like Cathy who feels “unworthy and unlovable.” Judy wrote, “As I drive to move forward, I find my self giving up! I have already failed even before I start. Changing a habit and feeling disappointment in myself when I don’t attain the results I am looking for.”
  • You are frustrated about incongruence between what you know and what you do. Some of you are health and wellness professionals who, like Shannon, feel “I should be able to navigate this better by now” and “how can I talk about mindful eating if I can’t do it myself.” Cynthia says “I took a class with you, which was wonderful, so I understand the process. The challenge is living the process and being confident that I am taking the right few steps forward with the behavioral-based changes needed to make it a reality.”

Can you relate to any of these? Please comment below.

Resolving your common eating challenges

Most longstanding eating challenges are caused by predictable patterns we work with all the time. Although you may not recognize the pattern yet, that’s what we’re here for!

There are reasons these common eating challenges come up repeatedly, and that’s good news! Once we help you identify the specific drivers of these cycles, we can finally get to the root of your eating problems. (And trust me. Diets don’t solve your eating challenges! In fact, they make most eating problems worse.)

Don’t you think it might be time to try something different?

Once we get to the root of your eating problems, we can teach you new ways of thinking and behaving that will help you finally break free from these frustrating cycles.

Read more about how our Eat Mindfully, Live Vibrantly Program addresses these challenges using the BEST of our 25 years of experience.

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13 thoughts on “Four common eating challenges”

  1. Having managed to get my eating under control throughout the day, at night I get hungry and start to imagine that I will not be able to sleep if I am hungry. Of course, eating so late in the day results in calories I will not burn while I am “sleeping well.” This is my current challenge..
    (Note: Comment edited slightly to remove weights.)

  2. I can relate to all of these, but the sad truth is that nothing makes me feel the flood of relief and calm that eating does. I am ashamed even writing this, but after learning to soothe my anxiety and emotions with food since a young child, I know it is reliable and will always work quickly and fairly easily. Certainly, I am really working on trying anything and everything to replace this – and I am getting closer and closer, but haven’t quite found something that matches the literal flood of calm that I get from food. I feel like I am really clear now about the difference between physical and ‘mental’ hunger (thank you so much for that clarity!) However, sometimes I can go all day without physical hunger and that makes me grumpy as I miss the enjoyment of eating, so that is my other challenge to deal with.

  3. I relate to pats statement I can’t spend the rest of my life dieting. I am 67 yrs old dieted all my life but I know if I don’t loose some weight With intuitive eating I will keep trying diets . I cannot be content at my weight.
    (Note: Comment edited slightly to remove weights.)

  4. You got it! Those are the four. Depending on the day I struggle with one or more of them. I cannot wait to hear what you announce on Monday! Thank you for working on this for us.

  5. I am having issue with 3 of the above items most of the time. I recognize myself and my eating challenges in many of the examples given in each section.

  6. I can relate to at least 3 of these challenges. Probably the biggest challenge right now life balance and body image. I feel like I don’t have time to do anything, so physical activity keeps moving to the very bottom of that list. All of the anxiety of Covid and such unrest everywhere you turn makes it even harder for me to cope. Eat-Repent-Repeat cycle is very prevalent right now.

  7. I struggle with #3 especially with pausing first before eating. I can come home from work, pop something in my mouth (cookie, chocolate) and not think anything of it. There is no thought involved and I can’t figure out how to really stop that. I don’t realize it until after the fact. Luckily, my meals (all three) are healthy, so I don’t feel guilty. I’m just not sure how to bring more awareness to the situation.

  8. How fascinating that with all of those email responses, you were able to group them into 4 categories. Why is it that the problems seem so easy and yet the solutions, for many of us, so elusive? I look forward to seeing where this goes. THANK YOU for your groundbreaking content. You are my hero. 🙂

  9. Although I can relate to all 4 in some way, the biggest ones for me are #1 & $3.

    I’m excited about seeing what’s being developed! I’ve been struggling most of my life, it would be awesome to have it in the rearview mirror.

  10. I am a diabetic and a bariatric patient and I have a very hard time staying on track with food because it is hard for me to figure out what I am supposed to be doing. One doctor or nutritionist will tell me one thing and then the next time another will tell me something completely different. I also snack in bed to keep my blood sugar up during the night and I over indulge in sweets/carbs. I wake up in the morning and my blood sugar will shoot straight up. I am beyond frustrated and I need help to figure out how to navigate this eating thing! I fit into all the categories in one way or another. It is very intimidating to admit that!

    1. The first step to change is awareness So’Toya! Feeling overwhelmed by conflicting nutrition information and thinking about sweets as something bad that you shouldn’t “indulge” in are some of the issues we work on with a lot of people! I’m glad you’re here.

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