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By Leo Babauta, Zen Habits

Most people have a hard time moving to a healthier diet, and they don’t understand what’s going on.

I was one of those people: 70 lbs. heavier and addicted to junk food, I would often tell myself that I’m going to start a diet, and even buy a bunch of new food, only to find myself snacking on chips, grande lattes, cookies, French fries and more after a few days.

Why? Because I used those foods to meet many of my needs, and taking the food away meant I had no way of dealing with some difficult things.

Food is a coping mechanism for most people, and to change our eating habits, we need new ways of coping.

Some examples of how we use food to cope:

  • We eat when we’re stressed. If you change to a healthier diet, how will you cope with stress instead? You need new stress coping strategies.
  • We eat when we’re sad or depressed. How can we learn to cope with these emotions in a healthier way?
  • We eat as a reward, when we’ve done something good. What will we do to reward ourselves instead?
  • We eat to socialize. How will we socialize without food?
  • We eat because we’re bored. How will we cope with boredom instead?
  • We eat because we’re angry. When we get in a fight, how will we deal with our anger instead of using food?
  • We eat for pleasure. Are there healthier ways to find pleasure that we’ll learn instead of using food?
  • We eat for love. We often equate food with love (our moms might have given us food lovingly as kids, or our lover used it to romance us), and so eating becomes a substitute for love. Where will we find love instead?

All of these (and more) are real needs. We all need love and pleasure and rewards, and ways of dealing with stress, boredom, sadness, loneliness, anger and frustration. For many of us, food has become the default way of meeting all those needs — and we can’t just take away the food without finding a healthier replacement. If we do, we’ll fall back into our old habit quickly.

It has taken me years to figure this out and to slowly build new, healthier habits to deal with all of these needs. But I can honestly say I’ve done it, and it’s possible. Do I still think about food when I’m lonely or sad or stressed? Sure. But now I have consciously built up some replacement coping mechanisms that work better for me, and I’m much healthier, leaner and fitter as a result.

Some things that have worked for me (your mileage will vary):

  • Exercise – a great way to deal with stress, boredom, anger. After awhile, a run can also be pleasure and a reward.
  • Meditation – excellent way of learning to deal with all of our emotions.
  • Tea – also great for stress, boredom, anger, but for me a great reward and source of pleasure.
  • People – I’ve learned to get my love from friends and family, and to use them as ways of dealing with my tougher emotions — talking with them, working out with them, simply spending time with them.
  • Cleaning – decluttering, mindful sweeping, mindful wiping things down with a rag (TM). A great way to mindfully deal with stress, boredom, anger, etc.
  • Solitude – I’ve found solitude a great way to deal with tougher emotions (you learn to work out your problems instead of avoiding them by eating food), and solitude can be a reward as well.

These are just a few ideas, and what works best for you will be highly personal. The idea is to figure out what you’ll do beforehand — before the need arises, or it’ll be too late — and then learn to be aware of these emotional triggers as they happen. When they do happen, very consciously do the new habit instead of the old. It’ll take awhile to form the new habit, especially as you’ll probably forget sometimes, but just remember my mantra: “We are all learning.” And have patience with yourself.

Food has become so many things to us, as individual people and as a society. It’s how we socialize, celebrate holidays, watch sports, show love, find comfort, deal with pain. And yet, that’s not always healthy: we are getting fatter and fatter because of this addiction, and it’s time we rethink our main strategy for coping and loving.

I should note that this idea is the same for any other addiction: biting your nails, smoking, drugs, alcohol, etc. We use them as crutches to cope with our needs, and to beat them we need to find healthier methods of coping and meeting our needs.

This article was written by Leo Babauta and published at Zen Habits.

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