Food has always been a big part of our lives. Besides nourishing our body, it completes every celebration we have! Can you imagine Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthday parties without food? Oh, nothing compares to a good dose of laughter over warm, delicious food!
But when does food go from friend to foe?
The answer is simple: When we use it to cushion our emotions! ?
Don’t get me wrong: I also have my own comfort food. We all do! However, I had to stop when I realized the danger of emotional eating. I’m just lucky enough that I was able to make a move toward prevention!
Identifying your emotional triggers is the best initial step to stop emotional eating. Once you know your triggers, it will be easier to guard your mind (and mouth) not to seek comfort from food! Along with this, assess your relationship with food and embrace helpful habits like:
- Rewiring your brain
- Managing stress levels
- Eating real food
- Going for healthy food alternatives
- Using herbs and essential oils
- Practicing self-care
Stay with me, because I got awesome tips on how to stop emotional eating and improve your eating habits! ?
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating, also called “stress-eating” or “binge eating”, happens when you use food to cope with feelings and emotions — instead of satisfying physical hunger.
One study, published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explains that emotional eating happens when you “overeat in response to negative mood and emotions”.
While this is the most common definition, researchers that stress-eating may also be triggered by positive feelings. According to experts, we are all “emotional eaters” to some extent. But when stress-eating becomes a habit (without realizing it), it can have a huge impact on your weight, health and overall well-being!
It can be challenging to undo the patterns of emotional eating — but it is possible to break off this unhealthy habit! The first step is to know the causes of emotional eating, so you can understand better what drives you to “eat your feelings”!
The Science Behind Emotional Eating: Why Does Eating “Relieve” Stress?
Why does eating make us feel happy and contented?
Well, it’s not just because of the delicious taste of food! Many factors cause emotional eating and I’m here to walk you through them!
Generally, your brain perceives eating as a pleasurable experience. When you eat, your brain is happy that you’re nourishing your body. The brain then rewards you by producing feel-good neurohormones — like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Once activated, these neurohormones boost your mood and relieve you from pain (both emotional and physical).
Researchers have a term for this: “Ingestion analgesia” — which literally means “pain relief from eating”. So, when you’re sad, frustrated or hurt, eating gives you instant “relief”! This rewarding feeling safeguards the body’s survival process, as it ensures that you will eat again to “stay alive”. Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve been stuck in this habit merely for comfort — and not for survival anymore!
Why is Emotional Eating Harmful?
Besides the health risks that come with stress-eating, it gives you a temporary feeling of satisfaction and elation. In that case, we usually end up feeling worse when the pleasure of eating has subsided! We get feelings of self-blame, regret and being “out of control”. The “heaviness” of overeating takes a toll on us — physically, mentally and emotionally.
Remember, when you’re stressed, your body needs more energy and immediate support to keep going. So, avoid foods that can only give you “instant glucose”. These include high-carb food (such as pizza and pasta), sugary food (like candies, soda, ice cream and cookies) and salty food (such as crunchy chips and all sorts of junk)!
Why Do I Eat When I’m Emotional?
According to clinical psychologist Megan Roehrig, stress is the number one reason why menopausal women tend to binge eat. During the menopausal transition, you may feel lost, empty and lonely. These stressors may trigger emotional eating as a source of comfort, reward or distraction!
Life transitions during midlife could also trigger emotional eating. When the kids move to another city for their studies or work (a.k.a. “empty nest syndrome”), both mom and dad turn to food to fill the “emptiness” of their home. Moreover, aging parents who need more care can also make us feel overwhelmed.
Research also suggests that fluctuating hormones cause binge eating. For instance, a study by Michigan State University claims that women are more likely to engage in emotional eating during their menstrual cycle.
I’m sure you’ve experienced your fair share of cravings when Aunt Flo comes to visit!
This is because during the first half of the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate, making you extra sensitive to environmental cues. Have you noticed that your nose suddenly gets hypersensitive? Like you can smell everything! If your friends are eating, it automatically makes you want to eat too!
Then, in the second half of your cycle, you are 2 to 4 times more likely to turn to increased amounts of stress-eating. This is because low sex hormones suppress the production of your feel-good hormones. As a response to the emotional distress, you find comfort in food.
As you may have realized, this scenario also happens in menopause! During the different phases of menopause, hormone fluctuations happen — which may lead to emotional eating. A whole host of other symptoms, like sleep disturbances, mood changes, anxiety and depression may also occur, leading to binge eating.
After a long day at work, you come home and have a glass of wine to unwind. This is where you need to be careful, ladies! With your glass of wine comes a bit of munching and nibbling and before you know it, you’re already carrying extra pounds.
This is how stress-eating tends to increase the risk of heart problems, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, diabetes and gut issues as we don’t typically binge on fruits and veggies for instant gratification.
“Normal Hunger” Versus Emotional Eating: What’s the Difference?
Now that you know the possible causes of emotional eating, it’s time to find out if you’re an emotional eater!
Typically, normal “physical” hunger is gradual and tied to the last time you ate. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, is triggered by stress, worry or fatigue (even if you just ate a few minutes ago)! Here are some signs to look for to see if you’re an emotional eater:
✅ You don’t want other people to know your way of eating
✅ You tend to shy off and feel guilty about the way you eat
✅ You can’t stop eating even if you want to
✅ You have trouble losing weight
✅ You always eat when you feel happy
✅ You eat even if you’re already full
✅ You get random food cravings
✅ You use food to cope when you’re frustrated or overwhelmed
✅ You don’t wait to get hungry before you start eating
✅ You unconsciously eat throughout the day
What is “Binge Eating Disorder”?
“Binge eating disorder” (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting approximately 3.5% in adult women. BED is characterized by the consumption of large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time. Often, the individual eats so fast that he or she is not aware of what is being eaten or how it tastes!
While binging, a person feels out of control and is unable to stop eating even though he or she likely wants to stop. People with BED usually eat even when they are not hungry, and often to the point of feeling uncomfortably full, nauseated or sick. Those who binge are typically unhappy about their behavior and most episodes occur alone in a private setting — such as in the bedroom, private office or in the car.
The specific causes of BED are unknown, but biological factors and psychological issues increase the risk.
► Family Background: Individuals may have an eating disorder if their parents or siblings have (or had) an eating disorder. This indicates that genes enhance the risk of eating-disorder development.
► Psychological Issues: Triggers for binging include stress, poor body image and the availability of preferred binge foods. Unfortunately, many people with BED have negative feelings about themselves, including their accomplishments and skills.
What Can I Do Instead of Comfort Eating? Here are 10 Helpful Ways!
The best initial step to stop emotional eating is to identify your emotional triggers. Once you’re aware of your triggers, it will be easier to stay on guard and avoid seeking instant comfort from food! Along with this, assess your relationship with food and embrace helpful habits such as:
1. Identifying your emotional eating triggers
One of the most helpful ways to prevent stress-eating is to identify your triggers. You can use a food journal to keep a record as you listen to your body’s cues. If you feel like you’re heading to the kitchen, write what you’re feeling at that moment. It’s also good to list what you ate throughout the day to see if there is a pattern in your emotional eating!
Learn how Brooke Castillo can help you with Food Journals (5:26)! I listen to Brooke’s podcast all the time because she truly makes a whole lot of sense. Try listening to her other podcasts too!
2. Rewiring your brain
Did you know that our brains are still wired as they were in the primitive Stone Age? It was an era where food wasn’t readily available and our only means of survival was killing wild animals!
As a result of this scarcity, scientists believe that each time our ancestors ate, their brains were always in survival mode. The brain then developed a reward system where food brought pleasure to the body.
Unfortunately, these wired systems still exist in our brains! Since the brain doesn’t have the ability to change in an instant, we have to support and rewire our own brains with a healthier and more evolved mindset!
We must train our mind to believe that we are no longer living in primitive times. Nowadays, food is found everywhere! Let us not give in to our basic impulses!
Read my article about positive mindset to help you go through your journey with ease. If you haven’t tried intermittent fasting, now is the best time! It re-programs you to take your mind off food! Read about intermittent fasting!
3. Find better ways to manage stress
Had a long, rough day at work? If you want to relax and unwind, look for healthy ways to rejuvenate!
You can do a quick yoga session, meditate, go for a walk, talk to a friend, do deep breathing, play a game, read a book and listen to good music. You can also get a massage, a warm bath or get intimate with your hubby! Oh, you can do countless things to manage stress better than eating your troubles away!
4. Eat real and healthy food
Eat more leafy and cruciferous greens, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Add fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi for good digestion! Eat more fish and shellfish, as they are rich in healthy fats and protein. Fill your plate with good fats, like olives and avocados!
These healthy food alternatives will help you feel full throughout the day. Remember, the gut and the brain are in constant communication with each other!
5. Go for healthy food alternatives
One great way to break the habit of stress-eating is to avoid eating too often. You can do this by sticking to an “eating window” — the time you are allowed to eat! Yes, that may sound “restrictive” but trust me, letting your gut rest will improve your relationship with food and your overall health!
6. Find non-food substitutes to enjoy
A hobby keeps you occupied, helping you avoid emotional eating. Drawing, painting, knitting and exercise are some of the fun ways to get rid of emotional eating! Divert your focus by doing something that relaxes your mind and body. It’s never too late to discover a new hobby too!
8. Love yourself
Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re probably trying the best you can. You deserve to be pampered and loved. If you’re overworked, take a break. Go out with your spouse and enjoy the day together! Bring back the younger years — watch movies or go to the beach! Enjoy a day at the spa with your girlfriends, or simply get a long, uninterrupted sleep! These are among the best ways to regain your strength and refresh your mind, without putting your health at risk!
9. Seek help
A nutritionist, registered dietitian or functional medicine expert can assist you in overcoming emotional eating. Of course, you must work with someone who will take your individual needs into account and cater to your health goals from a holistic perspective!
If your case needs psychological intervention, you can also see a psychologist or counselor. Most of them use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a method that pays attention to how a person thinks, which may lead to emotional eating. It also looks into the root cause of the situation, helps you acknowledge existing emotions and provides different ways to resolve unhealthy habits!
10. Fix insulin resistance
Insulin resistance is one of the most common health disorders in the world. It affects us in so many ways! Sadly, most people do not know that they have high insulin levels — which will eventually lead to IR and can be a sign of being prediabetic.
Insulin (a hormone produced in the pancreas) is responsible for keeping blood glucose at healthy levels — by letting glucose enter the body´s cells and, in turn, give energy! In short, this hormone has a directly proportional relationship with glucose:
✅ When glucose levels rise = More insulin is secreted
✅ When glucose levels fall = Less insulin is secreted
So, how does insulin resistance occur?
One of the primary causes of IR is eating the wrong kinds of foods — such as high-carb foods and sugar. These foods are known to spike glucose levels! Other factors that cause IR are poor sleep quality, stress and not getting enough exercise.
Now, if you have high glucose levels, the pancreas secretes more insulin (above “normal values”), in an attempt to keep blood glucose under control. These high insulin levels will eventually weaken or decrease the cells’ ability to break down blood glucose — which is supposed to be used by our cells for energy! Instead, blood glucose gets stored in our fat cells and muscle tissues.
No wonder why IR manifests through various symptoms [Insulin levels, hunger, and food intake: an example of feedback loops in body weight regulation – such as increased hunger, thirst, craving for sweets, abdominal fat and fatigue!
Bottom line: By taking care of your glucose levels, you can effectively get ahead of your cravings — and even reduce your risk of chronic diseases!
Combining a Keto-green/low-carb diet with intermittent fasting is a great combo. It is a good start to reduce high glucose levels, that force lots of insulin to be produced! Add more leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower) into your diet. Then, load up on omega 3s, like salmon, sardines and herring!
Yup, this article is about emotional eating, but when you are keeping your insulin in check, you will stop having constant cravings in between meals! You will not think of food as a supplement to happiness!
Intermittent fasting is also a great way to “hack” your body’s hunger signals, reduce body weight, clear a foggy mind, relieve body aches & pains and improve overall health.
Learn more about intermittent fasting!
Dr. Eric Berg has 8 more tips on how to stop emotional eating! Don’t miss out! (3:53):
I think many of us are either experiencing or have overcome problems with emotional eating. Even the healthiest eater can have this problem at some point in her life. The best thing we can do is to look for the root cause of our behavior!
Knowing the causes of emotional eating will not only break off the unhealthy eating pattern, it could also relieve some mental and emotional pain you may have been carrying in your life!
What feelings have you observed that trigger you to eat emotionally? What unhealthy eating patterns show up when these triggers arise?
We would love to hear your thoughts so feel free to add your comments below
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The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication – PubMed (nih.gov)
Insulin levels, hunger, and food intake: an example of feedback loops in body weight regulation – PubMed (nih.gov)