“Perhaps the most intimate relationship each of us will ever have is not with any fellow member of our own human species. Instead, it is between our bodies and our food.” This powerful and thought-provoking statement was made by Mariette DiChristina, editor of Scientific American. Sadly, I think it’s true. For many people food is the ultimate friend and companion. It’s always available. It doesn’t talk back or fight back. Most importantly, it provides tremendous comfort when dealing with challenging emotions, like sadness, anger, boredom, anxiety, and loneliness. It makes us feel better than almost anything else we do. Rather than using food to nourish our physical bodies, as Mother Nature intended, it becomes our tool of choice for soothing our emotional pain. When we abuse food in this way, however, we risk abusing ourselves. We’re more likely to overeat, binge eat, become obese, and develop eating disorders. That’s why emotional eating is so dangerous to health.
The Emotional Eating Cycle
Everyone eats with their emotions, at least some of the time. It’s part of being human. Food, however, shouldn’t be your primary coping tool for denying, numbing, and medicating the emotions that you don’t want to feel. It always backfires in the end. Food does provide relief and it can be powerful, especially since emotional eaters are more likely to reach for super tasty, high sugar and/or high fat foods, like chocolate, donuts, cookies, ice cream, or potato chips. These foods light up or activate the dopamine reward centers in the brain more than other foods. Your brain says “Wow! This is so delicious! Let’s have more!” Memory centers in the brain are also activated which say “Hey, pay attention to what this wonderful food is, so we can enjoy it again soon!” In addition, when your brain starts linking a particular food to a specific mood or feeling (for example, you eat chocolate every time you feel sad or bored), a food-brain circuit gets established that’s difficult to reverse. You start losing touch with normal signals of satiety (feeling full) and hunger. As you start to gain weight (which is inevitable for most), the problem becomes worse – you feel bad about the weight gain, eat to soothe how bad you feel, and end up gaining more. This becomes your life.
Emotional Eating Starts Early
Based on research from the University of Birmingham, by age 5 children are already consuming more calories in the absence of hunger in response to mild emotional stress. Parents who give food as a reward and those that restrict their child’s eating (overly controlling parents) are more likely to raise emotional eaters. Depression appears to be an especially strong trigger. Stress, loneliness, and boredom are powerful too. When you prevent and treat childhood depression, it results in less depressed teens that are less likely to eat emotionally or develop eating disorders. College and university students also need our attention – many report eating to forget problems and to suppress the emotions that they don’t want to feel.
Stop Emotional Eating With These Five Steps
Here are five steps to help you cope with your emotions without using food.
1. Habit change starts with awareness. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Start noticing when you eat, why you eat, what you eat, and how much. Write your observations down in a journal or food diary for far greater clarity and insight. What patterns do you see?
2. Notice the relief you get from emotional eating, but also observe how temporary the relief can be. How long before you want more? Also notice if the relief is followed by feelings of guilt, regret, or shame. This is not uncommon. Most of us excel at beating ourselves up when we eat in ways that we think are wrong. Self-criticism, however, only makes us feel worse than we already do.
3. Make a decision to change. As you sit down to each snack or meal, pause (the longer the better) and ask yourself “Am I genuinely hungry or emotionally hungry – bored, stressed, lonely, sad, angry, anxious?” If it’s emotional hunger, ask yourself “What is it I really need right now and how can I soothe myself in a healthier way?” This could include:
• physical exercise – just a short walk or stretch can do wonders (regular exercisers who eat when stressed are also more likely to reach for healthier fare)
• meditation – just a few minutes of focused breathing can provide relief
• listening to calming or upbeat music (dancing is highly recommended too!)
• calling a friend
• doing a crossword or Sudoku puzzle
• drawing or painting
• sitting quietly with some herbal tea
• lighting some candles or going to an environment that feels calming, like the outdoors
• reading or watching an inspirational book, poem, or video
• writing or thinking about what you’re grateful for (a proven mood shifter)
Create a list of soothing options that really work for you. Sometimes just changing what you’re doing, is enough to change the way you feel.
4. Commit to mindful eating. This means eating with both intention and attention. Notice when you’re hungry. Notice when you’re full. Don’t do other activities while eating, like watching television. Eat slower. Engage all your senses. Really smell, taste, and savour the food choices that you do make.
5. Be patient. Emotional eating doesn’t change overnight. Most of us have been doing it, to some extent, for many years. Practice well and don’t give up! Eventually new patterns of behaviour will replace old ones and eating won’t have to mask the emotions that you don’t want to feel.
A Final Word About Emotions
Emotions should be soothed, but not avoided. They’re nature’s way of telling us what we really need – things like love, time, touch, connection, respect, and so on. Don’t leave them behind. Approach them always with kindness and compassion. Have the courage to hear what it is they have to say. If you need professional help, get it. Ultimately, the relationship you have with yourself, and those you love, should be far more intimate than your relationship with food. Food can still be your friend (meal time should be enjoyable), but it shouldn’t be your best friend – the one you turn to in times of need.
Lessons Learned: Emotional eating can be harmful to health. It leads to overeating, binge eating, obesity, and the development of eating disorders. Learning to listen and respond to emotions in healthier ways is critical to happiness and well-being. Don’t let food be the bandage that gets you through the day.
P.S. If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it with friends, family, co-workers, and so on! I greatly appreciate it when you do!!!