Do you find yourself racing to the fridge or pantry when you are sad, stressed or angry? Do you normally turn to food for comfort, or when you are bored? A lot of people do. Evidence shows that those who emotionally eat reach for food many times weekly to halt and soothe negative feelings (1). However, if you often eat for emotional reasons rather than just being hungry, that can be a huge problem.
Following your urge to eat more than what you need is a surefire way to gain weight. It is an even bigger problem if you are already overweight or have health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
The good news is that with a better understanding of your condition and its causes, you can get back in control of your emotional eating. It is not all about food. Consider how you are doing physically and emotionally, and whether these things might be affecting your eating habits. Read on to know more.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is a condition wherein people respond to stressful, negative feelings by eating, even in the absence of physical hunger. It often involves cravings for high-carb and high-calorie foods with few nutritional values like chocolates, ice cream, cookies, chips, pizza, and fries. Individual differences in food intake are well noted. Approximately 40% increase their caloric intake when stressed. The same number of people decreases their caloric intake and only 20% of people do not experience any changes in their eating behaviors under the same stressful circumstances (2).
While emotional eating can be considered a common symptom of atypical depression, many who do not have such mental health issues engage in this behavior to relieve momentary feelings and chronic stress. This condition is fairly common and is of great significance because it can interfere with maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle and cause obesity.
Emotional Hunger Versus Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger is very powerful that it can be easily mistaken for physical hunger. But you can check on some clues to help you differentiate the two.
1. Emotional Hunger Comes Abruptly
If it hits you in an instant and it feels overwhelming and urgent, you’re more likely dealing with emotional hunger. Physical hunger develops slowly over time. The urge to eat does not demand instant satisfaction unless of course, you have not eaten for extended hours.
2. Emotional Hunger Makes You Crave for Certain Foods
People who are physically hungry will eat almost anything that sounds good. You may eat a variety of food groups. Emotional eaters, on the other hand, will ask for sugary snacks or junk food to get an instant rush, and nothing else will do.
3. Emotional Hunger Causes Mindless Eating
Before you know it, you have already eaten a pack full of chips or a pint of ice cream without fully enjoying it. When eating due to physical hunger, you are more likely to be aware of what you are doing.
4. Fullness Won’t Satisfy Emotional Hunger
When eating to relieve stress, you’ll continue to binge on food until you become uncomfortably full. With physical hunger, on the other hand, the feeling of fullness will serve as your cue to stop eating.
5. Emotional Hunger Is All In Your Mind
Instead of a growling stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving that you can’t get out of your mind. You are focused on specific tastes and smells.
6. Emotional Hunger May Lead to Guilt, Shame, or Regret
Satisfying physical hunger will not give you negative feelings about eating because you are just giving what your body needs. If you feel otherwise, then it is likely because you know that you are not eating for nutrition.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Like other emotional symptoms, emotional eating is thought to result from several factors instead of just a single cause.
Several human and animal studies show that stress may affect eating patterns in many ways, under different circumstances. Generally, heightened emotions trigger inhibited food intake through the fight or flight response, which may result in glucose release into the bloodstream, thus suppressing the feelings of hunger (3).
Cognitive and neuromodulation strategies for healthy eating are impaired, thus resulting in abnormal behaviors (4). In these cases, stress enhances the intake of palatable, nutrient-poor foods that are rich in sugar and saturated fats (5, 6). It reduces the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, thus compromising overall dietary quality.
2. Mood and Emotions
Over several years, mood and emotions have been shown to influence food choices. This can be explained through different pathways (7). Eating a meal can help reduce irritability and arousal and promote calmness and positive affect. On the other hand, getting a small portion size may have opposing effects on mood. Sweet and fatty foods are known as mood boosters because of their ability to activate brain dopaminergic, opioidergic, and benzodiazepine/ γ-aminobutyric acid neurotransmission (7). The dopamine neurotransmission represents the “wanting” aspect of eating, while opioid and benzodiazepine/γ-aminobutyric acid are associated with the “liking” aspect of food-related stimuli (8).
3. Increased Cortisol Levels
Evidence from human studies are correlating cortisol with dietary intakes. Key findings in one study showed correlations between cortisol and perceived stress in non-diabetic patients. There is also a considerable association between cortisol and saturated fat intake and sweet foods in diabetic patients (9).
Another study found that urinary free 24-hour cortisol concentrations were positively associated with daily fat and carbohydrate intake, including weekly consumption of starchy foods among overweight or obese women, and these relations were independent of BMI (10).
Studies show that women are at greater risk for depression and emotional eating (11, 12). Men respond to stress by decreased appetite (13, 14), while women are more susceptible to such eating behavior because of the functions of ovarian hormones during the menstrual cycle (15). A possible gene-depression interaction, which lowers serotonin activity, is also thought to moderate the relation between depressive emotions and the increase in emotional eating (16).
Other Triggers for Emotional Eating
What situations, feelings, or places make you ask for the comfort of food? While most cases are linked to stress and unpleasant feelings, it can also be triggered by other experiences and positive emotions like rewarding yourself for completing a goal or celebrating a special occasion. Other causes of emotional eating include:
1. Boredom or Feelings of Emptiness
Do you ever eat just to give yourself something to relieve boredom? You feel empty and unfulfilled, and food is your way to occupy your mouth and your time. It may help distract you, but only momentarily.
2. Childhood Habits
Think back to your younger years and your memories of food. Did your mom reward you with ice cream for performing well or keeping a good behavior? Have you ordered pizza for a movie night at home after you got a good report card? How about chocolates when you were feeling sad and blue? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Your eating pattern may also be driven by sentimental longing for great memories of baking cakes with your mom or grilling barbecues in the backyard with your dad.
3. Social Influences
Getting together with friends for a meal is an excellent way to relieve stress, but it may also lead to overeating. It is very easy to overindulge when there is good food and everyone else is eating. You are more likely to overeat in social events to make it easier to go along with people.
Common Reasons Why You Can’t Stop Emotional Eating
Emotional eating often results from not being conscious of what or why you are eating. Experts call this unconscious eating. It is when you are done with your meal, and yet you continue to pick at it. Slowly eating what you intend to leave behind or putting crackers or peanuts in your mouth just because they are in the table can cause you trouble in the long run.
2. Food as Your Only Pleasure
At the end of a long, tiring day, people often turn to pizzas or a big bowl of ice cream to temporarily relieve exhausted muscles. Eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains, which have a calming and soothing effects. And breaking these habits can be like kicking a drug habit. You must find other ways to reward yourself besides food!
3. Body Hate
Hating your body is among the biggest factors in emotional eating. Negativity, hatred, and shame rarely inspire you to make long-lasting good changes, especially when it comes to your sense of self and body. So stop hating your body to stop the cycle of emotional eating.
What Are the Warning Signs of Emotional Eating?
The common signs and symptoms of emotional eating include:
- A tendency to feel hunger intensely and abruptly
- Craving for high-carb and high-fat food
- The urge to eat is normally preceded by stress or an uncomfortable emotion of sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, or boredom
- Lack of control while eating
- Often feels guilty and ashamed after eating
How to Diagnose Emotional Eating?
The diagnosis of emotional eating is made after first ensuring that the patient has had a complete physical exam and laboratory work to rule out some other genetic and medical conditions. As part of the mental health exam, patients will be given a standardized questionnaire to help assess the presence of emotional eating. A thorough explanation of any history of mental health symptoms will also be conducted as it is very important to differentiate emotional eating from other eating disorders like binge eating, bulimia, or pica. A mental health professional will also be assessing whether other forms of mental illness are present.
Treatment Options for Emotional Eating
To overcome emotional eating, you should learn healthier ways to view food and develop better eating habits. You must recognize your triggers and think of ways to prevent them and stress.
One important step in managing stress is exercise. Regular physical activity can help dampen the production of stress hormones, which can also help decrease your risk of anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Engaging in relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation is also a good way to manage stress and decrease emotional eating. One or two sessions daily can have lasting beneficial effects on your health, including decreasing heart rate and high blood pressure.
2. Do Not Do Alcohol and Drugs
Refrain from using drugs and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. These substances can easily heighten your body’s response to stress. Also, indulging in any of these substances often prevents you from facing your problems directly, hence you cannot develop healthy ways to cope and eliminate stress.
3. Take A Break
Another easy lifestyle change that can help alleviate stress include taking breaks from work. Do not over-schedule yourself. Know how to recognize and respond to your stress triggers. Take day offs when needed. Structure your life to achieve a comfortable way to respond to the unexpected.
If you cannot deal with stress alone, counseling can be very helpful. It can be done individually or by a group. These therapy sessions have been proven effective in reducing stress symptoms and improving overall health.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most popular approach. In CBT, therapists commonly use 3 techniques to accomplish specific goals:
- Didactic Component: This stage helps you set up positive expectations for therapy and promote cooperation with the treatment process.
- Cognitive Component: It is very important to know the thoughts and assumptions that greatly influence your behaviors, especially those that may predispose you to emotional eating. One variation of this component is teaching mindfulness, paying close attention to the present moment. You’ll be taught how to think more reflectively, increasing your emotional awareness, and hopefully help increase your ability to separate your emotions from hunger.
- Behavioral Component: This employs techniques that will teach you how to stop emotional eating and use other strategies to effectively deal with your problems.
If stress produces full-blown psychiatric problems like clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD, then psychotropic drugs like SSRIs can be very helpful.
Other Ways to Prevent Emotional Eating
1. Start A Food Diary
Recording what you eat and when you eat it may be helpful in identifying your triggers. You can jot down notes in a pad or turn to technology with an app like MyFitnessPal. While it can be difficult, try to include everything you eat, whether it is big or small, and record the emotions you are feeling at that moment.
Also, if you choose to ask for medical help later on about your eating behavior, this food diary can be a useful tool to share with your physician.
2. Focus on Eating a Healthy Diet
Making sure you have enough nutrients to fuel your body is also very important. While it may be difficult to distinguish between true and emotional hunger at times, eating well throughout the day will make it easier for you to spot when you are eating out of stress or boredom. Go for healthy snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables, plain popcorn, and other low-calorie, low-fat foods.
3. Clean Your Pantry
Trash or donate the food in your cupboards that you often take in moments of strife. Get rid of sweet, high-fat, and high-calorie products like chips, chocolates, and ice cream. Also, avoid taking trips to the groceries when you are feeling upset.
Keeping the foods you crave out of reach may help break the cycle of emotional eating. It buys you time to think before noshing.
4. Pay Close Attention to Volume
Do not grab a whole bag of chips to snack on. Measure them and use smaller plates to help with portion control.
5. Remove Distractions
You may find yourself eating in front of your computer, television, and some other distraction. Move away from these appliances and put away your phone so you can start focusing on your food and the bites you are taking. Some even find it helpful to eat slowly and focus on chewing 10-30 times before swallowing a single bite of food.
6. Work on Positive Self-Talk
As mentioned earlier, feelings of guilt and shame are often associated with emotional eating. It can be helpful to work on positive self-talk. Instead of coming down hard, learn from your mistakes. Use it as a reference to plan for the future. Reward yourself with self-care measures other than eating. You can go to a spa for a massage, walk in the park, take a bubble bath, shop for clothes, and more when you make strides.
Food may help ease emotions momentarily, but addressing your feelings behind hunger is very important long term. Work to find alternatives to deal with your stress. Do regular exercises, practice mindful eating habits, and seek support.