You either get it or you don’t!
There are people in the world who just don’t seem to have that emotional connection to food, whilst others it can control their life, to the extreme point where it can be harmful to their health. And sadly, females, this is more common in with our biological make up vs men.
Both scenarios normal. With emotional eating being an individuals coping mechanism in response to a strong feeling. People therefore reach out to food as a way to suppress and soothe their negative feelings. This however, as describe by Dr. Chatterjee is a form of junk happiness, meaning it only provides a quick hit of happiness before usually a wave of guilt or shame hits, which often leads to a binge cycle and associated issues such as weight gain.
With food now everywhere, with no need for that hunter gather strategy, we as humans have lost the intuitive side to eating and are now stuck with the mentality of eating when we are bored, stressed or anxious (and also happy emotions) vs eating when we are hungry.
But why food?
Why after a bad day at work or financial stress or uncomfortable social situations do we decide to reach for food vs other coping mechanisms such as a creative hobby, tv, exercise…
It is thought that people reach for food as it creates that false sense of feeling off fullness or temporary wholeness that fills the gap of emptiness that is created from the negative emotions. Additionally, when we are stressed we release the hormone cortisol. This hormone makes us crave sugary, fatty or salty foods, as a response to our ancient times where we needed that quick burst of energy during those fight or flight moments.
Todays problem with this is that there usually isn’t a physical fight or flight response to the stressor and so the food consumed during this stressful time is often stored as fat and which is where the weight gain starts to creep in.
Where does emotional eating come from?
Usually emotional eating is in-built since childhood. Those times when you had to ‘finish everything on your plate and then you’re done’ vs eating until your body gives you that internal cue that you are full for now. Emotional eating makes it very hard to intuitively eat and listen to those internal cues or hunger vs emotional hunger because you’ve had a bad day or sleep.
Dieting is also a well know cause of emotional eating. When you enter a phase of restriction it usually makes your diet worse as your want brain will rebel to this restriction with overconsumption, bingeing and the all-or-nothing approach that makes you ‘fail’ the diet within a couple of days.
Those who suffer greatly with anxiety are also more likely to experience emotional eating OR go the complete opposite way, meaning that they lose their appetite. Both unhelpful to their experience of anxiety as both can lead to further negative emotions, whether this is guilt because they overindulged or continuation of the feelings of anxiety as they haven’t consumed food to help us deal with the stress and emotions.
Other stressors can be situational (e.g. covid) or seasonal (SAD) and many more!
How can you look out for signs of emotional eating:
Instant cravings - hunger is usually a gradual process, where you are satisfied once you have consumed food and you can intuitively note when you are full, hunger or becoming hungry. Emotional eating is more instant, mind consuming, when you want chocolate you almost have to have it NOW.
Cravings are specific- Like the craving of chocolate above. If no other food other than say chocolate is going to satisfy you then it’s a sign you could be dealing with something underneath the hunger.
Overeating- The sensation that a lot of people talk about is wanting that food to make them feel better or satisfied. No matter how much they eat, it never really brings them to that feeling until they feel sick or overly full and then they stop eating. Very like binge eating but the two are not quite the same. Binge eating being seen more as an eating disorder whilst emotional is not. Yet emotional eaters are more prone to develop a binge eating disorders as they use food to mask their emotional pain.
Shame or guilt. Any high emotion feelings like shame or guilt post eating is usually a sign you overindulged for non-hunger related means.
Note: Its ok to occasional eat a large amount of unhealthy food in one sitting. Chocolate after all does cure a bad day sometimes. Its noting how often these spurges are and when it becomes frequent and your main coping mechanism then its when emotional eating become more of a problem and you should look for help of try some of the coping mechanisms below:
How to stop/ reduce emotional eating
Find the root cause. The trigger to your eating habits. Are they short term issues i.e. fight with a friend, bad day at work or are they stemming from bigger issues such as, depression, long-term anger, chronic stress.
Ask why you are eating. Become more mindful (check my other post on mindful eating). Are you really hungry? When did you last eat?
Move your body. Yoga has shown to positively diffuse emotional stress such as anxiety and depression.
Try Meditation. Simple deep breathing is meditation that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils.
Start a food diary. Keeping a log of what you eat and when you eat it may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating.
Seek support. Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. Even a quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help.