Emotional Eating Part I: It’s Complicated


Yes, it’s complicated! That’s what we frequently say about our most intimate relationships. And when it come to the relationship of our bodies to food – it is always intimate and complicated. Our biology, our family history,  our mood all become combustible and suddenly, the refrigerator door is open, the chocolate is unwrapped, and the chips are spilling out of their bag.

No one wants to go hungry or even be reminded that it is possible. The slightest glimmer of hunger is enough to start putting food into our minds and mouths, often without even realizing it.

Many of us cope with anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression by  channeling our feelings into our food.  Hungry or not, we eat as a way to manage stress, sadness or loneliness
 – because in the distant past of human evolution, hunger was the problem and food was the solution.

And it feels – temporarily – like it works. Your brain chemistry actually changes when you bite into a chips and dip. “Carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin,” says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D. The higher the levels of serotonin, the more content you feel. More info.

“When we eat carbohydrates high in sugar or fat [like a brownie or cinnamon roll], our body releases the brain chemical dopamine,” says Karen R. Koenig, the author of The Food & Feelings Workbook. “It stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, so you’ll want to keep eating to repeat the experience again and again. And if you aren’t after carbs, you’re probably craving sugar and fat— both of which stimulates brain chemicals linked to pleasure and euphoria.”

Stress makes us more physically vulnerable to these triggers. “Chronic stress creates elevated levels of the hormone cortisol,” says Jeffrey Morrison, M.D. “Your body thinks you’re going through a famine,” he explains, “which can increase your cravings.” More info.

As children, most of us associated food with love, soothing, and relief of stress. Cookies and milk at the end of the school day, the lollipop your doctor handed out, the popcorn at the scary movie are etched in our memories.

By adulthood that association becomes ingrained in our minds, says Craig Johnson, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in eating disorders and the chief clinical officer of the Eating Recovery Center, in Denver: “Children’s brains sometimes aren’t developed enough to use words to deal with complex feelings, so they may use food to self-regulate emotions.”

Many parents, coping with stress by eating, instill it in their children. A study found that preschoolers whose moms reported regulating their feelings with food ate more snacks than did the other children. Read more.

Emotional eating is a way to both suppress and soothe negative emotions. Sudden life events– a move, job loss or personal trauma – or daily stress can trigger emotional eating.

Emotional eating is fine if it is occasional. It’s a natural adaptation to stress. But if it is a habit, it becomes a trap that is difficult to escape. It becomes a habit, even an addiction. Every time you feel  sad, lonely, anxious, or bored, you turn to food.

“Food can act like a drug,” says Geneen Roth, the author of Women, Food, and God. “It can take the edge off whatever is going on, similar to the way a drink does for alcoholics.” It’s defeating for your looks and health and it holds back your growth as a person.

Are your feelings about food a way of burying what you most need to know about yourself? Eating more than we need deadens us. Yes, it works! It deadens us to our pain, frustration, anger, worry. But it robs us of the chance to confront our fears, challenge our  limitations and solve our problems.

What can you do about it?

First, recognize that your own outer silence may silence your inner voice that lets you know when you are hungry and when you are full. A study of eating behaviors and self-silencing found that “Expression of thoughts, feelings, or needs seems to be a critical aspect of healthy eating behaviors.  The suppression of  our feelings may decrease trust of internal signals of hunger and satiation and disrupt Intuitive Eating.”

In other words, give voice to your needs. Vent. If you cannot vent, tell your boss, tell your best friend or write it in your journal. Acknowledge the things that impact your emotions. Don’t swallow it. Say it out loud.

Read more.

Emotional eating can never solve our problems, nourish us, or change our situations. A new awareness helps us distinguish between hunger and the emotional feelings that power mindless eating. We can at every moment, choose a new path.

See Emotional Eating Part II: Strategies