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How to Tap Into the Magic of Emotional Mastery

Emotions impact everything we do – including our eating habits.

While many who follow a plant-based diet experience weight loss, others end up feeling disappointed or angry because they do not see the same results.

Some may end up feeling angry for not succeeding.

They may feel helpless because ‘nothing ever seems to work.’

This is great time to discuss the role emotions play in our lives and how they can affect our approach to eating.

Emotional mastery is key to a full, rich life in all domains including our eating habits.

Let’s explore this incredibly important topic together.

Let’s First Talk About Emotions

We can all agree that emotions are an inescapable and inevitable part of living.

The real question is how can we harness the power of our emotions in order to live a fulfilling life, attain a deeper sense of well-being and access the most robust physical and mental health possible.

Let’s face it.

Sometimes life can get overwhelming.

There are so many issues that can unleash disempowering emotions.

You might have problems at work (or even lose your job altogether!)

Maybe your relationship hit some ‘speed bumps’ or even ends.

Or a big external event (like an election?) occurs that upsets or frightens you.

Fear. Anxiety. Insecurity. Anger. Helplessness.

We are all touched by the ups and downs of life and the emotions they trigger.

And many (millions!) of us seek solace in eating or –should I say– overeating.

For so many, food comforts and even for a few moments, alleviates the emotional pain.

Why ‘Emotional Eating’ Can Be Deceiving

Having said that, I am not the biggest fan of the term emotional eating.

That is because…

Every act and decision that we make is based on our emotions.

From taking a walk this morning to choosing to eat oatmeal for breakfast, every single thing we do all day long is emotion-led.

So, if we are going to call eating ‘emotional’, why not name everything else we do ‘emotional’? Emotional walking, emotional exercising, emotional watching TV. (You get the picture).

No matter how much we pride ourselves on being ‘rational’, the reality is that our actions (behaviors) and decisions are always based on emotion and rarely on fact.

A classic example is weight loss.

We know what we need to do to reach our ideal weight. Yet, we struggle. And we struggle because there is an emotional gap. It may be because we feel helpless or overwhelmed. It may be fear of failure. But whatever the specific emotion, it is those feelings that impede (or ensure) our success–not what we know rationally.  

The label ‘emotional eater’ may also imply that you are powerless to change the situation. It may lead you to believe, “This is who I am” and “There is nothing I can do about it” “I just have to accept the fact”.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

When you recognize that all human beings behave and decide based on emotions, you realize that we are all in the same boat. Eating as a response to an emotion is therefore not some kind of ‘special’ flaw you have. Eating is just the ‘vehicle’ you may have chosen to meet your needs (which we will cover in a bit.)

Why Do We Overeat (or Binge-Eat)?

To understand the answer to this question, we need to grasp how we adopt new behaviors.

Tony Robbins explains there are three steps to successful behavioral change:

  1. Intellectual Mastery: The first step to successfully adopting a new behavior is to understand the concept intellectually. For example, when transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, you need to understand what a plant-based lifestyle is and why it makes infinite sense for your health. But as we will see, ‘knowing’ is never enough.
  1. Emotional Mastery: The second step is to understand and master your emotions. For example, when switching your eating habits, you need to learn to associate empowering (positive) feelings with that type of diet (and keep negative feelings such as fear at bay).
  1. Physical Mastery: The third and final step is physical mastery. After you understand and embrace a habit through your mind and emotions, you begin to ‘live’ it. Your body assumes and accepts this new habit physically. You ‘own’ the new behavior, and it becomes second nature to you. It is part of who you are. It is your identity.

Another very important factor to bring into this mix is the environment.

Your surroundings play a huge role in ensuring that you adopt a new behavior. Your environment must be conducive to success.

Nowhere is this truer than with eating.

If you find yourself in a negative, stressful situation with no healthful food options, you dramatically reduce your chance of success when it comes to adherence to a plant-based diet.

And even though emotional strength can surpass temptations in your surroundings, if you are just starting out, you must stack the environment in your favor, keeping it as clean as possible and avoiding ‘bad’ foods where you are.

Why Do We Have Those Emotions in the First Place?

So we have now seen how emotions fit in when it comes to learning a new behavior.

We also know that binge eating (a learned behavior) is ‘triggered’ by negative emotions (notably, anger, fear, helplessness, and/or guilt).

So how do we better control our feelings so that we consistently engage in positive, good behavior (e.g. eating a whole plant-based diet) rather than in unwanted behaviors like overeating or binge eating?

The answer this question, let’s tap into the ideas of two great men–Abraham Maslow and Tony Robbins.

Maslow is best known for his Maslow hierarchy of needs, a theory which suggests psychological health is built on certain human needs, culminating in self-actualization.

Putting his own spin on the subject, Robbins ‘rewrote’ Maslow’s original hierarchy arguing that 6 needs need to be fulfilled every day in order for us to feel good:

  1. Certainty: Certainty is based on the idea that all of us want to avoid pain and gain pleasure. Every decision we make and every behavior we engage in is an attempt to fulfill this need.  It goes from securing basic physical needs such as housing, clothing, and food to believing that our efforts will pay off.  The key is learning how to endure what is perceived painful in the short term to achieve pleasure in the long run.  Unfortunately, most people trade that for pleasure in the short term, which will likely lead to pain in the long run.
  1. Uncertainty/ Variety: While ‘uncertainty’ might seem contradictory to ‘certainty’, we humans actually also need change and stimuli because it keeps us interested, engaged and balanced. Variety is indeed the spice of life.
  1. Significance: As Oprah Winfrey has famously (and rightfully) pointed out, everyone wants to be recognized. We need to feel special and know our existence matters.
  1. Love/Connection: To feel love and to love others within our families or romantic relationships is the fourth essential need. As humans, our urge to connect is inescapable.

The next two are what Robbins describe as ‘needs of the soul’ and can only be met once 1-4 are satisfied.

  1. Growth: Growth is all about expanding our understanding and capabilities.
  1. Contribution: Contribution focuses on service, the importance of giving and helping others. It is the idea that the world will be a little bit better for us having been in it.

It is important to note that there is always a way (vehicle) by which we can fulfill these fundamental needs. Those vehicles can be positive, negative or neutral.

A couple of examples…

We can fulfill our need for certainty (i.e. avoid pain and gain pleasure) with bad vehicles like eating too much, drinking or using drugs, or we can choose instead to fulfill this need with a positive vehicle like exercise.

We can feel ‘significant’ using a negative vehicle like violence (e.g. physical or verbal abuse) or through a positive one like volunteering.

The need is the same. They are just fulfilled very differently according to the vehicle chosen.

One last (but important) aside.

Any behavior which allows us to meet at least 3 of our 6 needs will become a VICE.

Let’s look at the example of eating junk food. This negative behavior will fulfill at least 3 of our needs: Certainty (Eating junk food will momentarily give us pleasure and help us avoid pain), Variety (When we eat junk food, we add variety and new stimuli to our day), and Connection (Junk food makes us ‘connect’ to ourselves – “Only we understand what we need right now”).  It may also fulfill our need for Significance (Having an eating disorder makes us feel special; it makes others pay attention to us).

This explains why so many bad behaviors are so difficult to give up! Even though these are negative vehicles, they are helping fulfill 3-4 of our fundamental needs simultaneously.

The bottom line?

The best way to nurture positive behavior in our lives is to choose positive or neutral ways (vehicles) to fulfill our fundamental needs.

Giving the Right Meaning to Our Emotions

All of this is interesting.

But we still have not answered our question on how can we reconfigure our emotions to always encourage positive behavior?

The problem is we humans often focus on things we cannot control, and to squander our energy, thoughts, and emotions about those things is a waste of time.

You cannot control the past.

You cannot control other people’s opinion.

You cannot control external events.

In the end, emotional mastery is about focusing on what you can control.

And what you can control is your emotional responses to whatever life throws your way.

Controlling what things MEAN to you is your ultimate power.

If you believe something is BAD, then you will associate that ‘something’ with disempowering emotions. If you believe something is either GOOD or might be an OPPORTUNITY for growth, the feelings you associate with that ‘something’ will be empowering.

In other words, it is never about what actually happens.

It is always about the MEANING you give to what happens.

It is what you choose to believe about what happens that ultimately determines your destiny.

Therefore, the key to success is to always find and embrace empowering meaning to whatever event happens in your life.

One great way to do that is to practice the art of gratitude.

There is zero room for negative emotions when you are grateful for who you are and what you already do and have.

When we master our emotions, we are always in a superior place.

A place where we can easily choose the best and most positive vehicle to meet ANY and ALL of our basic human needs.

It is from that place that we will succeed in anything in life, eating healthfully included.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.