Emotional eating is a term that has become almost synonymous with stress, sadness, and even joy. The comforting embrace of a bowl of ice cream after a breakup or a plateful of fries during a stressful day might be experiences many can relate to. But what really drives us to seek solace in food during emotional upheavals? Let’s dive into the enticing world of emotional eating and understand its root causes and learn perhaps why it isn’t always something to stigmatize!
The Chemistry of Comfort
Believe it or not, food can actually affect our brain chemistry. Certain foods, especially those high in fat, sugar, or salt, stimulate the brain to release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine. This release creates a sense of pleasure and reward, which is why we often turn to these foods when we’re feeling down.
For instance, carbohydrates boost the production of serotonin, often referred to as the “happy hormone.” This might explain why a bowl of pasta can feel like a warm hug on a bad day.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Our emotional connection with food often has deep roots in our past. Comfort foods are usually tied to memories, especially from childhood. The smell of freshly baked cookies might take you back to lazy afternoons at your grandma’s house.
These associations are powerful. When you’re feeling lonely, stressed, or sad, your subconscious mind might drive you toward foods that have a strong positive memory attached to them. Essentially, it’s not just the food you’re craving, but the emotional context and feelings of security and happiness that come with it.
Coping Mechanism: The Stress Response
Stress and emotional eating go hand in hand. When you’re stressed, your body goes into the “fight or flight” mode, releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is notorious for increasing appetite. Evolutionarily, this response prepared our ancestors to have enough energy to either fight or flee from threats.
Today, the threats are more psychological – like deadlines or traffic. Unfortunately, our body reacts the same way. To compensate for the increased cortisol levels, we tend to crave high-energy (read: high-calorie) foods. This is our body’s ancient mechanism kicking in at the wrong time.
Emotional Void and Food as Solace
Sometimes emotional eating is an attempt to fill an emotional void. When people feel unfulfilled in certain areas of their lives, such as relationships or career, they might turn to food as a substitute for the emotional gratification they are lacking.
The act of eating can be soothing and can temporarily distract from feelings of emptiness or dissatisfaction. In the absence of other coping strategies or sources of fulfillment, food becomes the go-to comforter.
Societal Pressure and Emotional Eating
Our society plays a significant role in emotional eating. From celebrations to commiserations, food is an integral part of how we express emotions. Birthday? Cake. Promotion? Dinner out. Heartbreak? Chocolate. Societal norms often dictate our emotional responses, and food is a big part of that.
Moreover, social media’s portrayal of food as an aesthetic, emotional, and cultural commodity further cements the bond between food and emotions. Emotional eating might also be a form of rebellion against societal pressures to look or eat a certain way.
Breaking The Cycle
Understanding why we emotionally eat is the first step towards developing healthier coping mechanisms. Here are a few strategies:
- Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness means being present in the moment and recognizing your emotions as they arise. This awareness can prevent automatic reaching for comfort food.
- Alternative Coping Skills: Find alternatives to cope with stress, like talking to a friend, reading, or engaging in a hobby.
- Healthy Snacking: If you must snack, opt for healthier options. Sometimes it’s the act of eating, not the food itself, that’s comforting.
- Seek Professional Help: If emotional eating is significantly affecting your life, don’t hesitate to consult a psychologist or nutritionist.
Making the cycle work for us
While emotional eating is often seen as an undesirable coping mechanism, it’s important to recognize that it is a natural human response to stress. With careful planning, even indulgence in emotional eating can be integrated into a balanced lifestyle without derailing your fitness goals. Here’s how to make it work:
Understanding the pattern of your stressors can be key. If you know that certain events or times of the month make you prone to emotional eating, planning ahead becomes easier. For example, if you know that work gets stressful during the end of the month, that’s a cue to start preparing.
Even if you’re indulging in some unhealthy snacks, you can make smarter choices. Opt for portion-controlled servings. Instead of buying a large pack of chips, get the smaller snack-sized packs. If you’re craving something sweet, opt for dark chocolate which is often lower in sugar and has antioxidants.
Ensure that the rest of your meals are balanced and nutritious. Focus on lean proteins, whole grains, and vegetables. When the bulk of your diet is healthy, there is room for indulgence without significant negative impact.
Adjust Your Exercise Routine
If you know you’re going through a period of emotional eating, see if you can adjust your exercise routine to compensate. Maybe add in a little more cardiovascular exercise to burn off some of the extra calories. Remember, however, this isn’t a license to binge – it’s about balance.
Even when indulging in emotional eating, practice mindfulness. Take the time to savor each bite, and listen to your body’s cues for fullness. Often, we eat more than we need to because we’re not paying attention.
Plan Healthier Alternatives
Have healthier alternatives on hand. Craving something salty? Maybe some air-popped popcorn with a dash of salt would work. Sweet tooth? How about a fruit salad with a drizzle of honey.
Flexible Dieting Approach
Consider following a flexible dieting approach like IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), where you have daily calorie and macronutrient goals. This approach can accommodate some indulgence as long as you stay within your macro limits.
Understand that it’s okay to have moments of emotional eating. The guilt associated with it can sometimes be more damaging than the act itself. Be kind to yourself. Planning for emotional eating into your fitness and wellness plan can help you balance and reduce the stress involved with the aftermath. If you’re like us and you only eat sweet treats when stressed, the feeling after the binge can be often worse than the binge itself. Know that if we bake this into our macros or plans, we can help account for this. If our goal were to tell you to “stop it and eat carrots” we know you’d agree until your next binging session. But if you half self compassion and account for your stress and bodily needs you can make it an okay part of your lifestyle.
Stress-Relief Alternatives and Hydration
Have alternatives for stress relief. Maybe a walk, a session of yoga, calling a friend, or engaging in a hobby. Sometimes these activities can prevent emotional eating or at least reduce the quantity consumed. Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger. Staying hydrated can sometimes reduce the desire to snack excessively. Combined with general stress relief activities you may find the urge to emotionally eat reduce. But again, keep in mind the urge isn’t always something we can avoid and may need to accept the self compassion we mentioned earlier.
The key to counteracting the effects of emotional eating lies in planning, balance, and self-compassion. It’s about making smarter choices, adjusting other aspects of your lifestyle to compensate, and understanding that it’s a natural human response. With these strategies, emotional eating doesn’t have to derail your fitness goals.
Emotional eating is a complex interplay between brain chemistry, memories, stress responses, emotional voids, and societal influences. By understanding these factors and actively working towards healthier coping mechanisms, it’s possible to have a more balanced relationship with food and emotions. Saying that emotional eating is bad is overly simplistic. A key take away from today’s article is that there are many approaches to “solving” emotional eating, including acknowledging that it is possible to fit it into your plan ( macros or fitness ). Some people don’t want to see emotional eating as bad since it helps them cope and coping isn’t always bad. Accusing oneself of being in the wrong for coping is bad. Let’s all practice a little self compassion and understand why we emotionally eat because for some folks it is a big part of their journey.