The Way to a Person’s Heart is through their Stomach.
No one can deny that we all have an emotional connection to Food. Grandma's Summer Pickles, Street side Pani-puri contests with your gang, the smell of cookies just fresh out of the oven, pigging out on a whole tub of ice-cream after a break-up. The mere mention of food stirs our senses and elicits both memories and feelings. So its only natural that we equate any and every feeling we have feel to food. Think about how you express your emotions, think about your best friend, your pet, your boss? Like many others, we all have varied emotional responses to various things, people and situations. Just like all of us feel, express, and act on emotions differently, our reasons for binge eating and the emotions causing it are not alike. In order to find a solution to control emotional eating, it is imperative to first discover the underlying type of emotion that's driving it.
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better to satisfy your emotional needs, rather than your stomach. Being creatures of habit, we all find comfort in routine. If your routine includes unhealthy habits like eating at odd hours, overworking, insufficient sleep etc. they become your comfort zone and making it very hard to break out of that cycle.
There is a common but inaccurate belief that emotional eating is only triggered by feelings of sadness or experiencing negative emotions. In fact many of us may not even realize that we are eating as a reaction to something and not because we're hungry. Think about it, have you ever done munched on a bag of chips when bored or craved a chocolate bar after a difficult day at work? Do you find yourself opening the refrigerator when you’re feeling down or have nothing else to do? Have you ever realized you overate during a fun party, special occasion or festival?
For some of us, emotional eating can be a behavior we learnt or did in our childhood. Did your parents give you candies or chocolates as a reward for doing well at studies? Did your mother make your favourite meal to comfort you on days when you were upset about losing a race? Over time we start associating these emotions with the food that helped us cope or celebrate. It is more than okay to succumb to emotional eating occasionally but when it happens frequently or becomes the main way of dealing with emotions, then life, health, happiness, and weight can be negatively affected.
Emotional Eating is not just a psychological phenomenon caused due to a lack of self-discipline or being weak-willed when it comes to dieting. It involves multiple factors ranging from hormones to neurotransmitters to relationships and the environment affecting our brains and bodies. Persistent Stress causes the nervous system to send out a message to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone Cortisol (a.k.a stress hormone).
Cortisol not only increases our appetite, but also ramps up our motivation to eat. Once the stressful episode is over, Cortisol levels fall down and we go back to our normal routine. But if the stressful factor is overwhelming or constant, our body's stress response may get stuck in the 'ON' position keeping the cortisol levels consistently elevated.
A research study by Harvard reports that stress because of work or any other issues is almost always seen correlating with weight gain. It goes on to say that this gets even more heightened in people who are already overweight and having high insulin levels, as stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.
Another study in UK from 2007 showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles of their regular lives compared to low-cortisol responders. However, overeating isn't the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to weight gain.
Everyone has bad days, but not everyone uses or needs food to get through them. Some behaviors and thought patterns can increase your chance of becoming an emotional eater and you may not even know it. Here are some of the most common situations that we've all been in, emotions we've all gone through and things we've all done in response to those feelings.
One easy way that is very popular nowadays is "The Broccoli Test"
Ask yourself "Would I eat broccoli right now?" If you answer "Yes" then you are physically hungry. Go ahead and eat.
If you answer "No" then you're not actually hungry for food, but looking for something else - Stress relief, a Distraction, a Quick escape, etc)
The idea is that when we're physically hungry any food is appealing. If the thought of vegetables doesn't sound appealing we're not physically hungry.
Recognizing if your hunger is physical or emotional may seem difficult, but there are specific aspects relating to how and when your hunger starts as well as how you feel after eating that are key differentiators between the two.
The Emotional Eating Cycle also called the Binge-Guilt-Binge Cycle is an unhealthy loop that you get stuck in, when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or even just plain bored. Although eating feels good in the moment, the feelings that trigger it still remain unaddressed.
For example, imagine a work day where your project did not get approved or that you're going through some sort of a professional setback. You feel sad, embarrassed, angry, guilty, fearful and overall distressed. Eating something sugary like a cheese loaded deep dish pizza, or a Baskin Robbins triple scoop, or some home cooked Khichdi can do wonders making you feel better. The hook lies in our nature and thought that actively seeks something familiar, comfortable, reassuring and guaranteed to give you relief even if its temporary.
When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you Do Not feel guilt or shame, because you recognize that you are simply giving your body what it needs. Paradoxically, in Emotional Eating, it doesn't take much time for the tides to turn and the behavior intended to give you consolation leads you down a dreadful path. The warm happy feeling you get from eating is fleeting, does not stick around and almost always makes you feel worse later. You feel guilty for overeating, hopeless, disappointed in yourself and not to mention bloated and physically uncomfortable as well.
So how do we deal with these new uncomfortable emotions that have cropped up?
By looking for something simple, natural, easily available and able to provide instant relief; even if only momentarily.
So here we are, back to where it started - feeling awful, powerless and now caught up in a Vicious Binge - Purge Cycle that's hard to break out of.
Do you eat in response to Hunger – or - Feelings? You may be turning to food when you are struggling with something and may not even realize that you are using food as a coping mechanism. So how do you know if you are an emotional eater?
Take our Quiz below to become more aware and understand how much emotional eating is affecting your life.
Before you start, just remember, This Quiz is just for YOUR own awareness, so show some self-love and don't be overly critical about yourself.
Now that you recognize the grade or extent of your emotional eating, you can start working on finding new ways to cope with it. Listed below are a few expert curated strategies and pointers to first help you with What you can do and then go on to elaborate on How you can do it and start changing these unhealthy patterns to get yourself back on track.
a) Observe your eating patterns and the people or events that make you want to overeat.
- Do you eat when you feel angry, depressed, hurt, or otherwise upset?
- Do you eat in response to certain people or situations?
- Do certain places or times of day trigger food cravings?
b) Develop new Coping Skills.
- Think about how else you can deal with the above identified feelings that triggered that urge.
- Take a class or read a book on managing stress.
- Talk about your feelings with a close friend.
- Go for a walk to clear your head. Your emotions might lose their force with time and space.
- Give yourself something else to think about, like a hobby, puzzle, or good book.
c) Value Yourself.
- Getting in touch with your values and strengths can help you manage bad times without overeating.
- Write about things you care deeply about and why they matter to you. This may include your family, a social cause, spirituality, or a sports team.
- Write about things you have done that make you proud.
- Spend time doing things you are good at.
d) Eat slowly.
- Emotional eating often means you eat mindlessly and lose track of how much you've taken in.
- Make yourself slow down and pay attention to the food you are eating.
- Put down your fork between bites.
- Take a moment to taste your food before swallowing.
- If you indulge in something like cookies or fried chicken, limit the portion size.
- Do not eat in front of the TV or computer. It is too easy to overeat when you are distracted by what is on the screen in front of you.
e) Plan ahead.
- If you know a difficult or stressful time is coming up, set yourself up for healthy eating in advance.
- Chop vegetables for salad or make a pot of broth-based soup ahead of time so you have hassle-free, filling meals waiting for you.
f) Do not go hungry.
- When you are both hungry and stressed, pizza and other fast foods become much more tempting.
- Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks like hummus and carrot sticks.
- Make comfort food healthier.
- Look for ways to prepare your favorite dishes with fewer calories.
- Use fat-free half-and-half or evaporated skim milk instead of whole milk or cream.
- Use 2 egg whites in place of 1 whole egg.
- The first step to curb emotional eating is by recognizing the triggers and situations that may be causing it.
- Keeping a food diary or journal can help identify situations when you're more likely to eat because of emotional hunger.
- Brainstorm ideas for ways to counteract the identified triggers
- If you are someone who eats when bored may want to find a new book that sounds exciting to start reading, or start a new hobby that could provide a challenge.
- If you are someone who eats because of stress could try yoga, meditating, or taking a walk to cope with your emotions.
- If you are someone who eats when you are depressed may want to call a friend, take the dog for a run, or plan an outing to cope with negative feelings.
- It can also be helpful to talk to your Sugarfit Coach to discuss other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating, and help you with creating positive eating habits and a better relationship with food.
Emotional eating only suppresses feelings. It doesn't change them.
It has been likened to an persistent door to door salesperson. If we don't answer the door, they'll keep knocking. We might as well answer it sooner rather than later. Until we answer the door we'll just keep suppressing emotions.
Emotional eating is unhealthy; both physically and emotionally, and can lead to overeating because it isn’t filling a need for nutrients or calories. Over time since your body doesn’t need this food, the intake of extra calories causes weight gain. The resulting obesity puts you at risk of Type 2 diabetes. Overeating can also cause you to feel guilty or embarrassed or emotionally exhausted making it more likely for you to suffer from depression or other mental health issues.
Although emotional eating may make you feel better in that moment and for a short period of time, it can never be the solution to the actual issue you are struggling with. But, there is always hope and you can still turn it all around by using the psychology of weight loss and habit changes to surmount and overcome the roadblock impeding your path towards a happy healthy life.