emotional eating

Understanding the Connection of Food Cravings & Emotional Eating

December 4, 2018

We all know that eating is essential to our survival. We eat because we need to eat, and without food, we wouldn’t be able to make it very far. However, survival is not the only reason that we choose to eat. For most people, food serves a variety of purposes beyond providing life and nutrients.

Food can be a source of comfort, of entertainment, or a way to cope with intense emotions. Food is also part of our daily routines, of our cultural practices, and of our celebrations. Food is everywhere, and for those of us that struggle with eating for reasons other than hunger, this can be daunting. But don’t worry, our brains can be trained to better manage these cravings with the right type of practice.

The Reward System in the Brain

There are a variety of chemicals in our brain, called neurotransmitters, that are released in response to pleasure. The major neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine regulates our perception and experience of pleasure, and when we experience pleasure, dopamine is involved. Serotonin is known as a mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter, and it helps regulate anxiety and reduce depression, therefore increasing overall feelings of wellbeing. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers, and their release is also related to the experience of increased pleasure and a natural “high”.

These neurotransmitters are released in response to a variety of different stimuli, including taking drugs, drinking alcohol, using nicotine, gambling, listening to music, playing video games, and you guessed it, eating food-  especially foods high in fat and sugar. These brain processes are part of our physiology. They serve an important purpose: to motivate us to eat so we don’t starve to death; but for some people, these processes have grown too strong and have caused the opposite problem.

Emotional Eating

“Emotional Eating” is the term typically used to describe eating in response to negative emotions, but in reality, this eating can result from negative emotions, positive emotions, and even neutral emotions, like boredom.

Have you ever been sitting in front of the TV after you’ve had dinner and all of a sudden you feel hungry? You’re probably not really hungry, as you’ve just eaten dinner, but you may be bored. Because you’re bored, your brain is looking for something stimulating, and alas, it decides on food! Your brain signals you to look for something to eat, you go into the kitchen, grab your favorite snack, and your body gets a nice influx of dopamine, which is what your brain was really looking for.

Typically, emotional eating is looked down upon as a form of lack of control, but that is not the case. Emotional eating is a coping mechanism.

If you’re having a terrible day and your friend comes over and cheers you up, it typically makes you feel better, right? Your friend’s presence helps you deal with your sadness and improves your mood. Well, emotional eating is a fast and reliable way to get the same effects.

If you’re feeling down, eating a food high in sugar or fat causes the release of these neurotransmitters, which in turn increases your feelings of pleasure. Scientifically, it does make you feel better at that moment, but the problem with emotional eating is that although it is an effective coping mechanism, it has several negative long-term side effects, including obesity and all of the obesity-related diseases, like type II diabetes, high cholesterol, and obstructive sleep apnea. Therefore, emotional eating is not a coping mechanism that we want to get in the habit of using regularly.

Dieting, Food Cravings & Emotional Eating

When people try dieting without dealing with their underlying emotional eating issues first, they often do just fine until they are confronted with a situation that would have caused them to turn to food in the past. Maybe they experienced something stressful, or they went out to celebrate an accomplishment and found that they were unable to combat their cravings in these situations.

The problem is that you can’t just rip away your coping mechanism and try and overcome your cravings with willpower- this will only get you so far. Not having any coping mechanisms in place to deal with the ups and downs of life is a recipe for disaster- in much more ways than your weight loss efforts.

Replacement and Distraction

The key is to replace eating with another activity that you also enjoy, so you can distract yourself from food while still reaping the benefits of those pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters when you need them. Remember, these neurotransmitters can be released in response to a variety of different situations, not just eating.

What I like to have my clients do is come up with a list of things they enjoy. Maybe it is reading, going for a walk, playing with a pet, doing a craft, listening to music, taking a hot shower, or calling a friend on the phone. You want these activities to be enjoyable to you so they are a worthy substitution for eating. Next time you are feeling the urge to eat and you can tell that you are probably not hungry, try doing the following things:

4 Steps to Check In With Yourself To Avoid Emotional Eating

  1. STOP:  Say “stop” either in your head or out loud to help get your own attention and avoid mindless eating.
  2. CHECK IN: Now think about what is going on. How are you feeling? Are you stressed? Bored? Depressed? Excited? Neutral?
  3. ASSESS: Evaluate your hunger. Do you feel physically hungry? When was the last time you ate? Did this hunger come on slowly (typical of actual hunger)? Or did it spring itself on you quickly (typical of emotional hunger)?
  4. IDENTIFY: If you identify that you are actually hungry, eat something. If you identify that you are not actually hungry, choose another pleasurable activity that will effectively deal with your current situation.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Combating emotional eating can be trying. This is not something that you are going to be great at right away- it takes practice to be able to do it consistently.

Each time you experience the urge to eat emotionally, you have a new opportunity to practice your new skills.

Each time you are able to choose a different activity instead of eating, you are strengthening the neural pathways in your brain to make the same positive decision next time.

Each time you choose eating instead of distraction, you can learn from that experience. You’ll win some and you’ll lose some, and that’s okay.

As with anything, the more you practice the better you’ll get, and every positive decision you make is a step in the right direction.

Alysha Bruso

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alysha Gebo MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian who specializes in obesity management and bariatric surgery. She works for the Steward Centers for Weight Control at two clinics on the south shore of Massachusetts. Alysha received her Undergraduate degree in dietetics from Framingham State University, and her Masters degree in Psychology, specializing in disordered eating, from California Southern University.

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