After yesterday’s super-science-heavy post about how food and the brain interact with one another, I thought it might be valuable to discuss emotional eating as well.
Though there are a lot of women who are well aware of what emotional eating truly is and how it affects our ability to conquer weight loss as well as improve our health… there are a lot of us who kind of gloss over the topic – either intentionally or subconsciously – because we either don’t know the realities of it, or we simply fear the realities of it.
Hopefully, I can provide an easy and clear understanding.
A while back, I remember hearing this quote: “If hunger is not the problem, food is not the answer.” It didn’t dawn on me what that meant, because I was so thick in the throes of finally overcoming my weight hurdles that nothing could make me so upset that I’d emotionally eat. It didn’t dawn on me until much later on that that quote addresses emotional eating head on.
What is emotional eating? It’s eating for any purpose other than nourishing the body. If you’re not running the super-extend-race-of-a-lifetime, there’s no reason to gorge out on pasta. If you’re not genuinely in need of nourishment, you’re not genuinely in need of food.
How do you spot emotional eating?
1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you’re open to options.
3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.
4. Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.
5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.
I really like this list because we all know situations where this list applies – the girl who just broke up with her boyfriend and now needs a pint of cookies-n-cream, the woman who just got chewed out by her boss and must find the nearest bakery – and we all may be able to recall a time where we’ve eaten beyond our “full” feeling because we were eating for that “ahhhh” feeling. There’s also this point about guilt – if I’m genuinely starving (which shouldn’t happen), I don’t feel bad about eating to fix that. If I’m eating emotionally, I’m giving up my ability to control how much food I take in because I’m not eating for nourishment, which has a finite point (that full feeling.) I’m eating to achieve an emotional feeling which, as we’ve seen lately, can very well take me beyond the point of fullness… and beyond the amount of calories I should be consuming for the meal, or even for the day.
There’s also the issue of what one chooses to use as a tool in emotional eating. It’s never “Oh, I’ve gotta have some broccoli right now.” It’s never “If I don’t get some carrots… right now.. I’m gonna cry!” It’s “Where’s the number to Papa John’s?” This is where the term “comfort food” comes into play.
How and why does emotional eating work?
How is it that emotional eating can cause and trigger such a response in the brain?
Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.
See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.
One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.
Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.
Compare this to emotional eating. The body’s reaction doesn’t change no matter what variables you swap out. Regardless if the stress comes from traffic, bad work day, or family problems… the body’s reaction to stress has not evolved as fast as society has. Now, we can get food within ten minutes if we drive or own a microwave. So presuming our body believes that stress is caused by a “famine on the way,” then it’s going to trigger feelings to make you go hunt! Our bodies just don’t know how easy it is to get food just yet. It hasn’t caught up.
This is what compels us to believe that emotional eating is the answer.
Emotional eating is defined as eating for a purpose other than curing hunger. If you’re eating for that gooey “Mmmmm” feeling, then yes – chances are, you might be emotionally eating. Approximately 75% of all overeating is attributed to emotional eating.
Because our bodies always provide this same reaction to food in a time of stress, our body’s reward system tells us that it makes sense to eat when stressed. It’s the fastest way to rid ourselves of this negative emotion, right? Stressed out about money and bills? You’re probably going to find the cheapest and quickest way to stick something in your mouth to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. For some of us, that means we’ll be Dollar Menunaires for an hour. For some of us, that means we’ll be hittin’ up the Edy’s or Blue Bell. For others, we’ll be needing peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, or chocolate chip cookies.
What is a comfort food? It’s a food eaten to provide comfort, usually laden with sugar, fat, salt or a wild combination of such. Macaroni and cheese, the ultimate comfort food, is a prime example: the overabundance of fat and salt can quickly put you in a food coma.
It’s easy to see how emotional eating can hinder one’s efforts to lose weight and gain control of our eating habits… but how do you stop?
How do you stop emotional eating?
Remember – if you are using emotional eating as a crutch to bring that kind of “peace” and “satisfaction” to your life, you are using emotional eating as a coping mechanism. You’re basically using it to make you happy. Think long and hard about that – is there happiness missing in other places in your life? Is there no other way you can bring yourself satisfaction? Are you avoiding stressful situations? The best way to deal with stress is to face the source of the stress head up. Developing a hobby – knitting, beading, kickboxing, jogging, yoga – or finding an outlet for your frustration so that you have something to do will make a difference. It’s much better than sitting idly by inhaling ice cream because we feel lonely.
The very same WebMD article offers these answers:
- Recognize emotional eating and learn what triggers this behavior in you.
- Make a list of things to do when you get the urge to eat and you’re not hungry, and carry it with you, according to the Tufts Nutrition web site. When you feel overwhelmed, you can put off that desire by doing another enjoyable activity.
- Try taking a walk, calling a friend, playing cards, cleaning your room, doing laundry, or something productive to take your mind off the craving — even taking a nap, according to the Tufts Nutrition web site.
- When you do get the urge to eat when you’re not hungry, find a comfort food that’s healthy instead of junk food. “Comfort foods don’t need to be unhealthy,” says Wansink.
- For some, leaving comfort foods behind when they’re dieting can be emotionally difficult. Wansink tells WebMD, “The key is moderation, not elimination.” He suggests dividing comfort foods into smaller portions. For instance, if you have a large bag of chips, divide it into smaller containers or baggies and the temptation to eat more than one serving can be avoided.
- When it comes to comfort foods that aren’t always healthy, like fattening desserts, Wansink also offers this piece of information: “Your memory of a food peaks after about four bites, so if you only have those bites, a week later you’ll recall it as just a good experience than if you polished off the whole thing.” So have a few bites of cheesecake, then call it quits, and you’ll get equal the pleasure with lower cost.
I believe that once you know the “benefit” of emotional eating, it takes a very long time to recognize exactly how unsustainable it is as a habit in clean eating. I believe it also takes a lot of time learning how to be conscious of your surroundings and triggers to beat it. It is absolutely possible, though, with the right amount of awareness and self-care… but with those two things, anything’s possible.
How do you identify your emotional eating habits? How are you learning to overcome? How have you overcame thus far?