Eating is not always limited to hunger and satisfaction. It is also a source of comfort, relief, and reward. What you eat affects your moods and emotions. The converse is also true – emotions and moods influence what you eat and the quantity and frequency of consumption.
Regarding food influencing emotions, one study linked fast foods and sugar-laden diets to depression and depressive moods. High-fat and refined carbohydrates coupled with sugar-sweetened drinks are comfort foods. They are probably your go-to foods when you get the blues – chocolate, chips, ice cream, and everything nice. It is highly unlikely that you reach for a carrot or an apple when you are down and out.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Food activates reward pathways in the brain, which in turn affects your emotional state and mood. Your brain responds to this positive feedback by increasing your appetite – this is the reason behind weight gain in emotional eating. On the other hand, mood affects food choice and how quickly you dispense the calories consumed. For instance, when you are anxious you might find yourself snacking on chips, or if you are upset about something you might reach for the comfort foods such as ice cream.
Once consumed, comfort food stimulates the release of feel-good molecules called endorphins. Endorphins, in turn, stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin. Together, these biomolecules keep you in a euphoric state for a short while. Each time the effect wears down, you reach out for more food. The vicious cycle eventually takes over your hunger and satiety pathway.
Know Your triggers
Your mood and emotions interfere with your hunger and satiety circuits. They can make you consume copious amounts of food and gain a lot of weight or keep you from eating, leaving you unhealthy and thin. Find out what pushes your buttons and resolve it instead of turning to food for temporal relief.
For instance, a breakup or fear of making a presentation can keep you binging on ice cream and chocolates. Instead of relying on the temporal reward, resolve your emotions. For the breakup, allow yourself to go through the stages of grief. Once the sting of the hurt is gone, learn from it. Find out your strengths and weakness and find closure.
The more you know your triggers the easier it is to change your behaviors. If you find yourself eating when you aren’t hungry, ask yourself “What was I feeling before I started eating?” It is often surprising to discover how many times stress, anxiety, anger, or other emotions trigger our eating.
Learn the Difference Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger
There is a distinction between emotional hunger and physical hunger. For instance, emotional hunger often is stronger than physical hunger. The need to eat often comes on suddenly and powerfully. Physical hunger, on the other hand, tends to grow gradually over time.
Additionally, emotional hunger has specific cravings. You suddenly get an urge for soda or potato chips. On the other hand, when you are physically famished, you will eat anything available. There is also a sense of mindlessness with emotional hunger. You consume an entire extra-large pizza without noticing. With physical hunger, you are usually more aware of your consuming portions.
Another distinction is emotional hunger is centered on the mind rather than the stomach. All you think about is that cold sugary drink or the crunchiness of the french fries. Thus, hunger manifests as a craving rather than the need for energy. When you are physically hungry, your stomach rumbles, and you can feel the pangs in your belly.
Emotional hunger often induces feelings of guilt after eating, while physical hunger leads to satisfaction. You get to enjoy the energy you were missing. Knowing these differences will keep you from gratifying the desires of your emotions.
Find Healthier Ways to Manage Your Emotions
You cannot control your emotions with food – even healthy food. Unlike the hunger-satiety circuit regulated by hormones, there are no regulators in the mood and emotions eating pathway. It also leads to food addiction. It leaves you wanting more food to satisfy the same craving, and before you know it, your portions have increased beyond the needed threshold.
Instead of food, take a walk to clear your head. Research shows that walking also releases endorphins that make you feel good. Endorphins work by inhibiting your body’s stress response. They also stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin, which enhance the happy state. Unlike food, walking does not lead to addiction. If you turn it into a habit, walking will also improve your cardiovascular health.
Other endorphin-inducing activities include meditation, hiking, cycling, jogging, listening to music, and journaling. Journaling has additional benefits. It helps you keep track of what you have overcome. It also lets you know what works for you and how it worked. Another healthy habit that activates your reward center is volunteering. You get to help yourself while helping others in need.
If the trigger is beyond your control, talk to someone you trust. It could be a friend or a loved one. The best way to find a solution is always through sharing your problem. Your confidant will help you see the situation from a different lens. They will also increase your awareness of what you are overlooking or emphasizing. Their input is significant in letting you identify the root cause of the problem and find a solution.
Learn to Rationalize Your Emotions
Feelings can make you build a mountain out of a molehill. Instead of reacting to your emotions and engaging with a flawed mindset, calm down and draw out facts concerning the situation. Employ reason and make deductions based on realistic conclusions. Make it a goal to think clearly and feel your emotions at the same time.
It is vital not to trivialize your emotions. However, do not indulge them either. Emotions are pointers. They let you know more about yourself – how people and circumstances affect you. Once you learn from them, you can calmly assess your triggers and find ways to avoid or confront them rationally.
Unlearn Behaviors that Encourage Emotional Eating
You are a product of nature and nurture. Some of your behaviors are a consequence of your genes, and others are the outcome of your upbringing. Emotional eating may stem from your family. Did your parents reward you with treats when you did something nice? Maybe that is why you are comfortable with food as your reward.
Do you eat to avoid dealing with your emotions? It is time to unlearn this by dealing with your emotions head-on. Does your social circle or family have a high affinity for food? Basically, every time you meet you consume abnormal portions of food. They could be enabling the behavior without even knowing.
Examine your upbringing and the company you keep to see if you picked up this habit from them. Once you identify a source, find healthy resolutions.
Take Your Time Before Giving into Cravings
Moods and emotions drive you to make impulsive reactions. They operate like an itch that requires a good scratch. Instead of giving in, take your time and analyze the urge. Is it vital or beneficial? If it is not a life-or-death situation, it can be resolved without food.
Take a pause and reflect on your feelings. Do not react to them without thinking twice. Emotions, in particular, arouse your appetite for a short period – a few minutes to be exact. That is enough time to reflect on your craving and find a solution that does not involve food. All you need is a worthy distraction like music or dancing to keep you from giving in to the impulse to binge.
Accept Your Situation
The reality is you are not powerless against food. You are powerless against your emotions. Your feelings dictate what you eat, how much, and how frequently you eat to keep you from facing the real problem. Instead of avoiding your emotions by stuffing yourself with food, confront your emotions. Facing them helps you accept your situation and make the changes you need to improve your circumstances.
You are stronger than you give yourself credit. You can face the battalion of emotions and emerge victoriously. Once fear is gone, your emotions will bow to the power of your will. Courage does not mean the absence of fear. It is a strong resolve to face your fear. You never know what you can accomplish unless you try.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.