Emotional eating: cravings, control and portion sizes

Understanding why a tub of double chocolate chip ice-cream makes us feel so good when we’re down is something few of us have really considered. We just know that it is the best comfort food along with dairy milk chocolate, pizza and other sweet treats. However, there is a reason why these foods scream out to us when we are in emotional turmoil; they hit the right evolutionary spot in comforting us and cheering us up when life upsets us. Our bodies are designed to seek out stimulatory foods when our endocrine system falters.

When we are under stress, whether it be emotional or psychological, our bodies are primed to seek out sugary foods for energy to supply the fight or fight response our bodies needs in order to fight off a wild animal or run away from it. What our evolution does not take into account is that, for the majority of us, we live sedentary lifestyles, eating a Western diet high in carbohydrates and low in vegetables. We don’t need additional sugar in our diet, nor do we have to run away from wild animals or fight them off! The sad truth is that this excess sugar and fat that gives us so much immediate comfort and satisfaction in the long run makes us gain weight and in turn lowers our self-esteem.

The cycle of sugar and stress

When we are under stress our bodies secrete an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin. This signals to the brain that we are hungry and to seek out food. Stress also makes us seek out not just food but high carbohydrate, high sugary foods. We eat these foods, it raises our insulin levels and places us in fat-storage mode. When insulin is secreted it drops our blood sugar levels and we feel hungry soon after eating. If we encounter stress again, not only will we want to eat but we will want to eat sweet foods. The cycle can continue and repeat itself making you feel constantly hungry and gaining weight rapidly. You may not necessarily have a sweet tooth but may just be under significant stress.

The danger of boredom eating

Some of us are not at risk for eating high sugary foods due to anxiety or emotional distress; some of us eat and over-eat purely because the food is there and we’re bored. It happens to so many of us. We suddenly find ourselves without something to do, all the chores are done, we’ve checked Facebook, and there is nothing to watch on TV. We search for something to do. Eating is pleasurable and it’s an activity we can do at home easily. We go on the hunt for food and often snack when we are not hungry, stressed, or emotionally upset. This can be dangerous because you are mindlessly eating calories your body does not need and eating excess food and nutrients you cannot use for energy. It can put you at risk for insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Why do we emotionally over-eat?

Emotional anxiety can give us the urge to over-eat and seek out comfort foods because our childhood primes us into linking the two. When we are first born our mother feeds us with milk; we associate comfort, being held, and motherly love with food. As we get older, parents comfort us with sweet foods when we are upset or after injury; we fall and scrape our knee, and mum is there with a sweet and a hug. They also give us sweet treats as rewards for good behaviour or achievements and we again associated food with positive emotions. Parents may also withhold food for bad behaviour - for instance, by saying we cannot eat dessert if we don’t finish all our vegetables. Food is used as a currency for love, achievement, happiness, and perceived bad behaviour. Undoing this childhood priming can be difficult, but being aware of it can help you change it. It also explains why so many of us reach for chocolate when our emotional anxiety is high; we are seeking out comfort, acceptance and love.

The psychoneuroimmunological view on emotional eating is that one is trying to stuff down as much food as possible to “suppress” a deep seated discomfort and dis-ease of something one is not willing to face or deal with head on. It is worth taking a step back and reflecting on what you are not wanting to face or are actively avoiding in your life. Even if you are not willing to deal with it just yet, knowing what it is can be the first step towards changing it and changing your health forever.

Top tips for confronting emotional eating:

  • Keep a Mood-Food Diary and record what you eat during the day and any emotions you had prior to eating and after eating. This will help you identify which emotions are triggering over-eating.
  • Eat a low Glycaemic diet combining both carbohydrates and proteins in meals to keep you fuller for longer. This will help you identify when you are really hungry and when you are not.
  • Eating a balanced diet that regulates your blood sugar levels can starve off hunger pangs and stabilise your moods.
  • Make a list of activities that you can do if you have a weakness for eating when you are bored. Stick the list on the fridge and read it if you are there to snack in times of boredom. Find an activity and do it instead of eating.
  • Consider therapy. Some people find it helpful to explore childhood patterns around eating and food to understand their relationship with food.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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