Where the subject of emotional eating is concerned, one might conjure an image of a person lying on the couch, shades drawn, wrapped in a blanket, eating ice cream—a heartbroken person, finding solace at the bottom of a pint of sweet frozen dessert goodness.
The majority of us have likely been there at least once. But it is a different matter altogether when emotional eating is constant through each day. At that point, it is considered a disorder.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating refers to the act of consuming food when you are not hungry. When individuals find themselves reaching for food because of stress, depression, fear, boredom, sadness, or loneliness, it is regarded as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
And unfortunately, much of the time, the type of foods people tend to reach are junk foods high in saturated fat and sweets. So, in addition to eating when not hungry, emotional eaters tend to consume foods that are not good for them, which piles on a feeling of guilt that only increases the chances of more emotional eating.
In other words, it is a vicious cycle.
It’s an unpleasant situation that arises, triggering a conflicted emotion. The individual looks for solace in food and finds momentary comfort in it. Later in the day, regret appears, which is another unpleasant situation, triggering them to seek food again, to soothe the emotions.
Emotional eaters may not listen to their body’s signal that they are full, causing them to overeat. This can undermine weight loss efforts, keeping emotional eaters in an endless loop of guilt and despair.
It certainly can be a challenging cycle to break, but it’s not impossible.
What are signs of emotional eating?
Every once in a while, we may eat for other reasons besides hunger. However, when eating becomes the go-to coping mechanism for negative emotions, it presents a problem.
Some signs of using food to conceal emotional distress are:
- Change of eating habits when stress arises.
- Use of food as compensation for going through some difficult times at work, school, home, etc.
- Eating even if you are feeling full or not hungry.
- Using food to avoid dealing with unpleasant circumstances.
- Utilizing food as a way to ease painful feelings.
The Role of Hormones in Emotional Eating
Indeed, the way we deal with emotions affects multiple aspects of us, some mental, some physical. Difficult situations do not affect everyone in the same way. However, hormones can play an essential role in how we feel and the way we deal with problems.
Cortisol and Emotional Eating
A study conducted among pre-menopausal women showed that excessive cortisol levels produce more food cravings, especially those high in fat and sugar content. (1)
Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands: small triangle-shaped organs sitting above the kidneys. Cortisol is the body’s natural alarm system; it stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight response when problems come up. However, cortisol plays a crucial role in other essential functions such as:
- Lowering inflammation levels.
- Regulating blood pressure.
- Increasing blood sugar.
- Managing the use of fat, proteins, and carbohydrates.
- Regulating sleep
- Boosting energy, thereby helping to handle stress better.
However, when cortisol levels are too high due to chronic stress, it can cause various problems in the body like:
- Rapid weight gain localized in the abdomen, chest, and face while legs and arms are slender.
- Higher blood pressure.
- Decrease bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
- Changes in the skin, exhibiting bruises and purple stretch marks
- Slow wound healing due to weakening of the immunity and inflammatory body responses.
- Mood swings.
- Suppressed thyroid function.
When stress reaches chronic levels, it can also trigger feelings like anxiety, apathy, anger, and depression. The combination of these feelings impacts the emotional nervous system that controls our reactions. Research has shown that individuals with higher cortisol levels when battling with negative emotions use food, especially “comfort food” as a form of self-medication. This behavior creates an emotional eating cycle that aggravates their existent chronic stress. (2, 3)
How to Stop Emotional Eating?
As with any other disorder, emotional eating has no “one approach that fits all” cure. It is more like a combination of tools and recommendations that people can use to gain control over their physical and emotional health.
Keep a Food Journal
Journaling can be a powerful device to create awareness around which situations trigger you to eat emotionally. You can write what you were doing/feeling before eating. The idea is to discern patterns in your emotional eating.
Use a Hunger Scale
Creating a hunger scale can help you differentiate between physical hunger and the hunger triggered by an emotion. For example, when hunger arises, rate it with a number from 1 to 10, where one is really hungry, and ten is when you feel satisfied.
Yoga is a practice that aims to improve not only your physical condition but also your mental state. One study explored the relation between yoga, cortisol levels, and emotional eating.
Researchers studied a group of women between the ages of 25 and 46 years old who participated in eight-week hot yoga practice. These women had elevated cortisol levels, struggled with emotional eating, and were at higher risk of obesity. At the end of the study, scientists concluded that the yoga program positively impacted the participants. They presented lower cortisol levels, which also help to manage their emotional eating. (4)
Start A Food Diary
Some people find that a food diary can be challenging to integrate into a daily routine, but it really can be enlightening and rewarding. Keeping an inventory of everything we consume can make us more mindful of what we choose to put into our bodies. It can also help make healthier food choices easy, making nourishment a snap for our bodies and minds.
Integrate Relaxation Tools
Keeping stress under control means that we can affect our emotional reactions and the body’s hormonal responses, triggering emotional eating.
Practicing mindfulness meditation or any other meditation technique can help. Simple breathing techniques have been shown to reduce excess cortisol in trial participants. (5)
Emotional eating can be a tricky thing to live with, but plenty of tools are available to help ease the burden.