Emotional Eating

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Samar Hafeez

Clinical Psychologist and Counsellor

Bangalore, India

Have you ever reached out for a bag of crisps (or chips, depending on where you’re from), a bowl of ice cream or a bar of chocolate when you are feeling bored, lonely, angry or sad?

Have you ever indulged in any food without even realising what it was? Have you ever noticed anyone eating excessively when they are out of sorts or when an unpleasant experience or argument has passed?

Most of us have gone through such instances at some point in our lives wherein we have eaten to soothe our feelings. Food can be a distractor, but eating does not solve the problem that caused discomfort or distress in the first place.

When things get rough and stressful, people oft en turn to food for comfort and this type of eating is referred to as emotional eating, which simply means that your emotions, not your body, dictate and govern when and how much you eat.

Most of the time, people use food to deal with negative feelings, this usually includes a desire to distract oneself from a disagreeable or unpleasant emotional scenario. Emotions ranging from stress, sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, embarrassment and regret all encourage you to eat emotionally.

Sometimes, it is life’s major stressors, but most of the times, it can be small day to day upsetting situations that cause someone to gravitate towards “comfort foods” (foods that are consumed to obtain and sustain a specific feeling) and people use such foods to soothe their riled up emotions.

People who eat in response to stress usually consume high fat and sugary foods. We all at some point have felt the bliss aft er eating chocolate or an ice cream. Have you ever wondered why? Research indicates that high fat and sugary foods activate chemicals in the body that give a sense of contentment and joy. According to psychological research, any behaviour that is positively reinforced or rewarded is more likely to be repeated and sustained.

Emotional eating affects both men and women, but its prevalence is higher in adolescent girls, women and in people who are overweight.

Differences between physical and emotional hunger are:

  1. Physical hunger occurs more gradually, whereas emotional hunger is sudden, impulsive and overwhelming
  2. When one is physically hungry, he or she can include any healthy foods, but when you eat to fill a void that is not related to a hungry stomach, you crave for specific comfort foods such as pizzas, burgers, fried foods, chocolates, ice creams and so on
  3. While eating in response to a physical need, one is more aware as to what one is consuming, while eating in response to emotions, a person may not actually realise this
  4. We usually stop eating when we are full – our brain signals us to stop when we are done. A person eating in response to emotions tends to crave more and more, stuffing oneself with food unless they are uncomfortably full
  5. Eating to satisfy physical hunger does not include guilt or regret, because you are simply eating to provide the body what it needs to function, but when you eat to satisfy emotional hunger, it leads to guilt and regret at the end of it. This is because deep down, one knows they have not eaten for a nutritional purpose

Causes of emotional eating

Chronic stress and anxiety tends to elevate cortisol (primary stress hormone) levels, which in turn disrupts the hunger hormone named ghrelin. This then causes one to overeat without regulating hunger and satiation signals to the brain; it also increases food cravings and reward-driven eating behaviours.

Major life changes like death of a loved one, divorce, separation, unemployment, depression and loneliness are contributing factors. In a 2012 study at Columbia University and St Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, researchers found that subjects who were sleep-deprived were attracted to unhealthy food choices than those who were not.

It’s important to note that emotional eating can put an individual at high risk for various lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, insomnia, diabetes, chronic acidity and constipation, high cholesterol, eating disorders and cancer.

Self-help tips to manage emotional eating

  1. Ask yourself a few mindfulness questions to increase more awareness, for instance, ask: “Why am I eating? Am I eating because I am angry, sad or bored? Do I crave for specific foods? Do I regularly stuff myself with food until uncomfortably full? Do I reward myself with food? Does food make me feel safe? Does food make me go out of control? Do other people around me use food to soothe feelings?” These questions, when answered, should give you a basic sense of realisation about your reasons to eat
  2. Food for thought: Identify emotional triggers and record them for a few days in a mood or a food journal. Rate your hunger and satiation on a 0-10 scale, and ideally, you would want to eat when your hunger is at 3-4 (mild hunger) and stop when you are at a 7-8 (comfortably full)
  3. Increase your awareness by tracking what and how you eat. Keep a track of your weight each month. Structure your shopping, include nutrient dense snacks and do not shop when hungry as you are less likely to pick healthy stuff
  4. Do not eat whilst watching television, playing video games, driving or while working. These behaviours do not help us build a healthy relationship with food
  5. Take away temptations: Clean your refrigerator and cupboards of all unnecessary comfort foods and stock it with healthy foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and nuts. These help balance the vital functions within the body
  6. If you feel overwhelmed, sad or lonely, call someone (family or friend) who can make you feel better. Distract yourself; substitute it with a healthy behaviour like taking a stroll in the park, listening to relaxing and soothing tracks, engaging in a favourite hobby or watching something pleasant
  7. Engage in relaxation techniques like deep breathing meditations for ten minutes every day. Meditation helps to improve focus and mental calmness. The resulting reduction in stress will make you become more considerate and cheerful
  8. Refrain from over-scheduling your day as this can lead to exhaustion, and while we are tired, we tend to overeat. Plan Continued from page 6 your day based on priorities and do not overwork yourself. Taking breaks at home or at work helps immensely by breaking the vicious cycle of stress and fatigue

If you feel self-help strategies are not helping you any longer, then it is suggested that you to see a therapist specialising in treating eating disorders or a clinical psychologist, who can help you combat the deeper reasons behind why you eat emotionally. They will teach you skills to build a healthier relationship with food. Therapy can also identify if you have an eating disorder, which might be contributing to emotional eating.

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