When it comes to our eating habits, many of us turn to food for stress relief or as a reward. But take note if your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, lonely, bored, or exhausted. If you’re an emotional eater, you may feel powerless over your food cravings.
When the urge for “comfort food” hits, craving can consume us. After indulging, we feel worse than before. Not only does the original emotional issue remain, but now there’s a serving of guilt for dessert. And those bad feelings can compel us into another escape to emotional eating.
The way out? Replace emotional eating with mindful eating.
Trigger and Biochemical Response
If you’ve ever made room for a sweet treat after overeating big meal because you’re feeling down—or spooned down half a carton of ice cream—you’ve experienced emotional eating.
The trigger may be any external event or thought that stirs feelings you wish to avoid. Eating junk food to fill emotional needs, rather than our stomach, is often an attempt to fill an emptiness inside us. We may feel depressed, guilty, or anxious and eat as a way to cope with the feelings.
Using food as an occasional pick-me-up or to celebrate isn’t a bad thing. But eating as a primary emotional coping mechanism can feed an unhealthy cycle.
The cycle becomes hard to break because the root cause is not addressed and our biochemistry can work against us.
Sugary foods operate on the same neurotransmitter pathways as cocaine. Both trigger the reward centers of the brain, and that’s why both make us feel a certain sense of “happiness” and why both are extremely addicting. When our feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine) begin to fire, our brain is signaled to keep eating.
Emotional eating may feel good in the moment, but afterward, you often feel worse than you did before, and your body is distressed from trying to handle the caloric load. No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change.
Are You Eating for Emotions?
Ask yourself these questions to determine if you’re driven by emotions to indulge in excessive and unhealthy foods:
- Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
- Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
- Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious)?
- Do you reward yourself with food?
- Do you regularly eat until you’ve over-stuffed yourself?
- Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is your friend?
- Do you feel powerless or out of control around certain foods?
Emotional and Physical Hunger
Stress-based hunger comes on fast and with a vengeance. It hits you in an instant and feels urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The metabolic urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time). Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods, like junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
But when you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed, because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Identify Emotional Eating Triggers
Did you know you can learn to pause between an emotional trigger and your response? The first step is to notice when you feel compelled toward emotional eating.
What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Here are some common causes of emotional eating.
Stress Eating: Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, it leads to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can trigger cravings for what researchers call “highly palatable” foods—salty, sweet, fried, and sugary foods. These deliver a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress you have in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Hiding Emotions With Food: Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. When you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the emotions you’d rather not feel.
Childhood Memories and Habits: Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with cookies, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These emotionally based childhood eating habits often carry over into adulthood.
Feed Your Soul
Find other ways to feed your feelings and care for your soul. If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets always fail. Take time to address the deeper feelings and sources of those emotions.
We give our patients the following proven recommendations:
- Socialize. If you’re sad or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better.
- Contribute. Do something for the sole purpose of brightening someone’s day.
- Listen. Feed your soul with music—and don’t multitask while listening.
- Read. Find a great book, maybe something related to emotions and wellness.
- Relax. Enjoy a cup of green tea.
- Create. Make something with your hands.
Fill Yourself With Nature
For decades, many in the Japanese culture practiced what is called shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” The Japanese word shinrin means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” Our translation would be to allow the beauty of nature to cleanse and refresh your mind and senses.
Instead of following the urge to eat, follow the urge of your soul for peace and clarity. There is nature wherever you live, even in congested urban areas.
Press the Pause Button
Your own willpower might fail you unless you stop to pause. Mindful eating is a practice that develops awareness of eating habits and allows you to reflect between your triggers and your actions. Take a 5-minute pause break before you give in to a craving.
Can you put off eating for five minutes? Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait. While you’re waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Do you need this food? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Digest Your Feelings—All of Them
While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be overwhelming at first. You may fear that they will overtake you. The truth is that when we don’t obsess over—or suppress—our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.
Conquering emotional eating requires learning new ways to relate to food. That’s important because feelings-based habits and cravings can sabotage your mental and physical health. The most important medical decision you make every day is at the end of your fork.
Drs. Mark and Michele Sherwood are the founders of a successful medical practice, and help patients from around the world find the health they were created to enjoy, in every area of life. As bestselling authors, podcasters, movie producers, and media personalities, they founded Hope Dealers International to reach beyond their clinic. More info at Sherwood.tv
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.