Emotional eating, or comfort eating is very common in both women and men. You may turn to food for comfort – consciously or unconsciously – when facing a difficult problem, feeling stressed or even feeling bored. Comfort eating can lead to a binge of high calorie foods, which will completely sabotage all your hard work when on a weight loss mission. Another form of emotional eating is rewarding yourself with food – have you ever hit your weight loss goal for the month and rewarded yourself with a cheat meal?
The foods that we binge on are usually high sugar, and we can’t just stop at one block of chocolate or one chocolate mini-roll. Why is that?
“When we eat sugar, opioids and dopamine are released. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the “reward circuit” associated with addictive behaviour. When a certain behaviour causes an excess release of dopamine, you feel a pleasurable “high” that you are inclined to re-experience, and so repeat the behaviour. As you repeat that behaviour more and more, your brain adjusts to release less dopamine. The only way to feel the same “high” as before is to repeat the behaviour in increasing amounts and frequency. This is known as substance abuse.
“Research shows that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine,” says Cassie Bjork, R.D., L.D., founder of Healthy Simple Life. “Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward centre, which leads to compulsive behaviour, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more.”(1)
That’s pretty scary isn’t it? Comparing sugar to cocaine, so not only is this behaviour impacting your weight, it’s also impacting your brain.
My mars bar story
The relief this food brings is only temporary, but the weight gain will be there for longer. About 6 years ago I was living alone in the UK, in a rented flat I could barely afford, my social life was non-existent due to lack of money and not having many friends living close by. I decided to buy a multi-pack of full-size Mars bars to save money on buying them singularly, and have in my drawer at work. I had 1 at lunch on the day I bought them, then as I packed my handbag to go home later that day I put the remaining 3 mars bars in there. I made a generous dinner – 4 sausages, mashed potato and baked beans washed down with a glass of wine. I then reached into my handbag and proceeded to eat the 3 mars bars one after the other. I left no time for my brain to register that it was full from dinner, I just ate and ate. I was eating my feelings, and boy did I feel sick after. I overate and over-drank quite regularly during the 18 months I lived in that flat. I know the signs of emotional eating and drinking and I can say those occasions are very very rare now.
Managing your emotions
I want to help you to manage it and avoid those miserable binges, here are some suggestions:
1) Keep a food + emotion diary
The advantage of adding emotions to the food you’re eating if you can start to see patterns. Even writing down if you’re actually hungry could be really useful. Just use the ‘notes’ app in your phone to track it.
2) Recognise the triggers for emotional eating. A trigger can be big or small – major life events or the hassle of daily life – regardless of what it is it will bring on negative emotions which lead to emotional eating.
These triggers might include:
- Relationship conflicts
- Work stress
- Financial pressures
- Health problems
Add these into the food + emotion diary so you can see the associated cause. If it’s a daily trigger I recommend you look at your lifestyle to see how you can reduce this stress, it will be doing all sorts to your health, not just your weight.
3) Remove temptation
I am no saint when it comes to treats like chocolate or cookies. The truth is if I have it in my house it generally doesn’t last long, I need to get rid of it. So my advice to you is to remove temptation – do not have it at home, do not have anything in your drawer at work. Make it as hard as possible to get access to comfort food. If it’s not there, you can’t binge right? Simple.
4) Learn to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
- “Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
- Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good – including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
- Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
- Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
- Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
- Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.”(2)
5) Distract yourself.
Once you know the pattern, you know the trigger, you know the difference between emotional hunger and real hunger, what do you do when these cravings or attacks of emotional hunger hit?
Distract yourself…run away, have a nap, call a friend, go shopping, put on your activewear and do some exercises at home or go for a walk…anything you can think of. Look at your progress pictures and make yourself focus really hard on how much damage the binge will do for your goals and set you back when you’re trying so hard every other day.
But what about pre-menstrual cravings? Different rules apply right?
Um no! Pre-menstrual cravings are not an exception, they are just another form of emotional eating. We crave chocolate, ice-cream, cookies, cake etc. not because our bodies ‘need’ them, but because they make us feel better.
“When you menstruate, your oestrogen and progesterone levels do go low and sometimes we can feel a bit more tired or a bit stressed,” Simone Austin, accredited practising dietitian and spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, told The Huffington Post Australia.(3)
Don’t let all your hard work be sabotaged by…you. That’s the bottom line. I know it sucks to feel sad and lonely or stressed, yet the food will not do you any favours.
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