When Emotional Eating is a Problem and How to Stop It…
Eating doesn’t occur in a black hole. It always has and will have cultural, emotional, symbolic, habitual, nutritional, and ethical aspects for us. From our earliest days of nourishment and soothing by breast or bottle as infants, the emotional side of eating has existed.
The Science Behind Eating And Emotions
We’re wired to respond positively to food because we need it to survive. The food we eat influences brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine (often referred to as happy chemicals) in our bodies in a variety of ways, including:
- Food itself is required to make these brain chemicals
- The sensations experienced when eating, and certain food components such as fat and sugar, can trigger their release, and
- The foods we eat are a key influential factor in the bacteria that naturally live in our gut. Including the types, amount, and activities of the population. Certain kinds of bacteria produce chemical signals that communicate with the brain and influence our mood.
Why Humans Eat Emotionally
Tribole and Resch, registered dietitians and authors of Intuitive Eating (2012) created a continuum of emotional eating from the trivial to the detrimental:
On the trivial end, it’s important to note that seeking sensory satisfaction (think smell, touch, taste) from food is a normal part of nourishing ourselves. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t sense such variation in flavour, texture, mouth-feel, aroma, and temperature in the foods we eat.
Food is a natural emotional experience. Our brains develop connections between our food and specific memories or emotions. For example, the scent of chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven might remind you of your doting grandma.
It’s no surprise that we tend to gather and express ourselves through and with food. Births, deaths, weddings, birthdays; these significant events in our lives involve eating. To expect that we can separate eating from emotions is to ignore their dual role in our social traditions and the important ways we connect with each other.
Yet, if the need for sensory satisfaction using food becomes compulsive, or food has become your sole source of comfort in difficult times, or you’re using food to numb, distract, or even punish yourself, then it’s time to address the emotional eating.
How To Stop Emotional Eating
1. Notice And Interrupt The Vicious Cycle
The most important thing to be aware of is that guilt and shame are terrible behaviour-change strategies. A Google search for emotional eating shows it’s branded as “bad”. When we think we’ve done “bad”, we feel “bad”, so the likely response is to seek soothing, distraction, numbing or even punishment again… more food.
What to do instead? Notice and change your critical self-talk. We can acknowledge the behaviour served a purpose (otherwise we wouldn’t have continued it), and work towards change without berating ourselves. This is crucial for emotional eating to stop re-triggering the cycle. Self-compassion can help quieten the self-critic; explore Kristin Neff & Tara Brach’s works for more on this topic.
2. Learn To Tell The Difference Between Hunger And Other Physical Sensations
Learn the power of the questions, “Am I hungry”? “What kind of hungry”? We often identify hunger as being something we feel in our gut, but we can feel a lot of things in our gut, such as anxiety, guilt, shame, elation, attraction, and anger.
When you’re hungry, ask yourself, “Is this feeling… a) physical hunger, b) a gut sensation related to an emotion (let’s call it an emotional body cue), or c) both?” If it’s physical hunger, the feeling will fade as you eat and dissolve once you’ve had enough. If it’s an emotional body cue that needs your attention, eating may help a little (or least in the short-term). But the feeling is likely to hang around or quickly return regardless of what you eat or how physically full you become.
Eating can be a normal part of our response to “emotional body cues” but is rarely the catch-all solution. Consider what else your body might need instead of, or in addition to, food. That may be as simple (and equally difficult) as acknowledging the emotion and sitting with it. Other times, you might need a good cry, to lie on the floor and take a few deep breaths. Or exercise to get rid of pent-up emotional energy. If you’re unsure how to manage certain “emotional body cues”, a registered psychologist can help build your confidence in this area.
3. Don’t Start A Diet
Emotional eating itself can be distressing, particularly if you’re concerned it’s affecting your health. Though, it’s important not to seek quick solutions by restricting food or banning comfort food in response to emotional eating. Why? The withdrawal of something, which has given a boost in brain chemicals that made you feel better leads to one thing… cravings.
It’s also difficult to withdraw food entirely – it’s everywhere and we’d die without it. And restriction makes the effect of emotional eating on the brain more powerful, thus reinforcing its use as a coping mechanism. Eat regularly, eat enough, eat a variety of nourishing foods and give yourself permission to include the foods that bring you joy or comfort in your day as well. You will be far more successful with steps 1 and 2 if you take this approach. For extra support on this step, recruit an Accredited Practicing Dietitian who specialises in disordered eating.
When it comes to emotional eating, the Goldilocks Principle is useful – not too much, not too little, but somewhere in the middle lies the sweet spot for our physical and emotional wellbeing.
I’d love to hear your comments on what triggers you to comfort eat?
Having read this article what are you going to consider next time
you’re feeling like reaching out for the cookie jar, leave me a comment.
About The Author
When she’s not working with clients at the QLD Pelvic Floor Centre, Kate — a self-confessed natural water devotee — makes time for being near the ocean, waterfalls, and creeks. Her fur baby, a one-year-old Spoodle named Mila, doesn’t mind going along for the water seeking adventures.
To find out more visit: Pelvic Floor Centre: https://qldpfc.com.au/