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Have you ever devoured an entire pack of cookies during your favorite TV show and not realized it until you were grasping for one more, only to find there were none left. Been there, right? Most Americans admit to eating beyond the feelings of fullness, and research shows that 43 percent of people use food to alter their mood.
What is emotional eating?
Typically we think of emotional eating as an activity we engage in following an emotionally difficult event, a breakup, the death of a loved one or friend, or simply general exhaustion. People often believe that in such situations, eating will help soothe negative emotions.
But this isn’t the only kind of emotional eating. Emotional eating occurs whenever a person consumes large amounts of food in response to feelings other than hunger. Dietary experts believe that 75 percent of overeating is triggered by emotions. Other less obvious emotional eating situations include times of boredom, periods of relaxation, and social gatherings. For many, emotional eating can be a compelling and complex feeling of imprisonment, for which they seek therapy to break the spell food has over them.
Why do we overeat?
Emotional eating can range from eating despite a lack of hunger to an all-out binge where we lose control and use food as an escape, in a similar manner to how an alcoholic might drink.
The psychological reasoning behind this often depends largely on the individual. For instance, ‘boredom’ eating is common because boredom is an acute state, void of pleasure and stimuli, and eating is a way to satisfy the brain’s desire for activity. This can more positively be countered by calling a friend, reading a book, or simply by recognizing the boredom trigger. Some people experience an even further level of boredom known as anhedonia, which is a neurobiologically-based reduction in sensitivity to pleasurable experiences. This form of boredom makes satisfaction very difficult to attain and often leads to drug abuse, compulsive sexual activity, smoking, and of course, overeating. Eating is a quick way to satisfy the pleasure centers of our brain since we are naturally wired to enjoy food and culture has in many cases trained the brain to think of food as a reward.
What are the consequences?
The satisfaction obtained from food is short lived and the original underlying feeling often lingers. On top of this, there is probably a new feeling of guilt from overeating. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that overeating can lead to weight gain, and those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or any sort of mood disorder have a higher likelihood of chronic emotional eating, potentially leading to weight problems. In some cases this can swing the other way and fuel an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.
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Additionally, the chemicals we gain from food have a strong impact on our emotional health, since the connection between food and mood are intricately connected. We feel sadder when we’re hungry due to a lack of neurochemicals in the brain. To elaborate, through eating we experience changes in serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine levels in our brain – all of which control our mood. Sugar, for example, causes serotonin in the brain which makes us feel more balanced and equitable. The popular antidepressant, Prozac, uses this same chemical mechanism to improve moods.
The practice of binge eating sets up a cycle where we become depressed and irritable when hungry because consuming an unhealthy diet leads to chemical disturbances in the brain. Studies have linked antisocial behavior to sugar, refined carbohydrates, vitamins B11 and B1, iron, selenium, magnesium, and to omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies. Simply adding nutritional supplements can significantly reduce these emotional problems, but the best bet for conquering them is to keep emotional eating habits under control.
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When we rely too much on fleeting pleasures for our satisfaction, eventually this can actually alter the brain’s capacity to experience pleasure from anything else. Researchers have noted pleasure deficiencies shown on brain scans of a variety of people, finding that frequent abuse of food or drugs actually alters the brain, causing it to not light up with dopamine as it once did.
Chronic overeating can also lead to diabetes and predisposes the body toward inflammation, insulin resistance, elevated blood pressure, psychiatric illness, poor digestion, hormone imbalance, and malnutrition. It’s important to note that in complications from emotional overeating, food isn’t the enemy – your brain is. Treatment isn’t simply a matter of losing weight, but rather targeting the emotional cause.
How to identify triggers
Recognizing emotional eating is the first step. Start by keeping a food journal that allows you to see when overeating is occurring. Track portion size, food type, and how you feel when eating. After only a few days you should be able to identify patterns and what is leading you to overeat. Identifying triggers is a huge step Actually tackling those bad habits, however, is a bigger challenge.
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Controlling Emotional Eating
Conquering emotional eating can be difficult and often requires the assistance of a therapist and/or a dietician. But here are some steps to help you overcome this unhealthy habit.
- Learn to distinguish between real physical hunger and the desire to eat for pleasure. Is your stomach growling? How recently have you eaten? If you ate something within an hour, revaluate your physical symptoms and try directing your attention elsewhere. Also drink some water, since the brain often mistakes thirst for hunger.
- Don’t skip meals. The urge to emotionally eat is stronger if you are feeling fatigued from a lack of calories and nutritional needs. Extreme hunger makes overeating much easier to do.
- Think it through before you eat. If the urge to overeat hits, take a moment to ask yourself these important questions, “ Will eating this make these feelings disappear?” or “How will I feel after I eat this?”
- Keep a healthy home. It’s difficult to binge on unhealthy, fatty food if the refrigerator is stocked only with fruits and veggies.
- Don’t go grocery shopping while hungry or in a bad mood. Being surrounded by comfort foods can only be a bad thing, especially when you are vulnerable from hunger and the emotions it can cause.
- Replace stress eating with healthy alternatives, such as sipping black tea, self-massage, or meditative breathing exercises. Keep practicing, even if it’s tough at first.
BBC News. Are we emotionally what we eat? Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3592058.stm
Hyman, M. MD. How Emotional Eating Can Save Your Life. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/emotional-eating_b_1672589.html
Pagota, S, Ph.D. I Am Bored, Therefore I Eat. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shrink/201206/i-am-bored-therefore-i-eat