There is so much more to eating than food. Apart from the significant influence of your biology, it’s affected by place, timing, whether you’re alone or with others, and, of course, your emotions. How you feel, what you feel, and the intensity of your emotions can make the difference between reaching for the refrigerator and choosing to take a pass.
Are you eating to fill emotional needs and minimize or prevent emotional distress? Then you might just be an emotional eater.
We all have our ups and downs, but some of us have an emptiness or hunger that goes deeper. Sadness that won’t go away, confusion we can’t resolve, a purpose we can’t find. It’s an emotional need that can’t be pacified with food – even if eating feels good at the moment.
While it’s okay to eat as a reward or pick me up from time to time, it becomes a problem when your first instinct is to head for the pantry whenever you’re stressed out, upset, or lonely. We all need coping strategies, but this one can lead to weight gain, associated health problems, and eating disorders.
Curious if your emotions are causing you to overeat? Here are 7 ways that this can happen.
1. You are overwhelmed by sadness or shame
Down and out? Let’s grab something to eat. Sad about that breakup? I’ve got some ice cream! Screw up at work today? Here, have a drink.
The number one thing you may want to do when you’re feeling sad is to numb the pain. This may mean reaching for food, particularly that of the high-carb, sugary, and fatty variety. There is a reason for this, as such food sets off a chain reaction that ends with the release of that feel-good chemical, serotonin. It’s more than just good taste. The food gives your brain the pick-me-up you need to feel better almost instantly. The irony is that this can backfire, causing guilt at all the extra calories ingested and the lack of control not only over your emotions but your food intake as well.
2. Boredom sets in and what else is there to do but eat?
Picture this – it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and you have nothing to do. You’re sitting in front of the television watching some garbage reality show, and you reach for a bag of chips or a box of cookies. A few mindless minutes later, it’s gone. What the heck just happened?
When you’re bored, you may not be fully attentive to your surroundings or actions. It’s the opposite of mindful – you’re not tuned into what you’re doing. This can result in extra calories ingested for no good reason other than to kill some time.
3. Your brain is on fire – with stress and anxiety
In our overcharged, hyperlinked, multitasking society, stress is the new normal. And most of us are desperately searching for ways to alleviate it. Enter food into the equation. Stress has been shown to increase intake of sweet, calorie-dense foods. Whether it’s alcohol, sugar, or a big heap of some comfort food, you may be hoping to find that holy grail of calm through food.
What causes this? One culprit may be the high cortisol levels associated with chronic stress. As Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H. was quoted as saying in Shape Magazine, “The body assumes that with elevated levels of cortisol, physical activity will follow.” In our day and age, we often don’t follow a stressful event with physical activity, but our body isn’t exactly clued into that. Since sugar- and fat-filled foods inhibit stress-related brain activity, the result is that we feel less stressed out after hitting that boat-sized plate of pasta. But like most good things in life, it won’t last, and the stress will return.
4. You want to connect to a prior time or event
Think back to a happy event in your life and you’ll likely recall a time with friends and family, novelty, connection, stimulation, and fun. These are “sticky” memories, and what makes them stick is the complex, multi-sensory input of the experience. You may distinctly remember the smell, feel, sight, sound, and taste of foods you were eating at the time and connect it to the positive emotions you felt. Whether you realize it or not, you may be drawn to eating those same foods as a way to reconnect with memories of past events and loved ones.
5. You deserve a reward!
You kicked that presentation out of the park, got that promotion, or just finally drop-kicked that toxic person out of your life. You deserve a reward, right? Sure, there is nothing wrong with celebratory eating, and often it is just what you need. But if you reward yourself too often or find yourself coming up with new and admittedly flimsy excuses to do so (congrats to me – I showed up to work today!), then it can become a problem.
6. You need a friend
Food can evoke feelings of safety, much like a security blanket. So many who overeat talk about food as a distractor, a friend, a buffer against the blows of the outside world.
We’ve all felt the need for security or the comfort of a friend. When one isn’t around, food may be the best substitute you can find. But food will never fill the emptiness of being lonely, and it can’t protect against the pains caused by a sometimes cruel world.
7. You’re scared…
A lot of us are scared and for good reason. We have to navigate unsafe communities, problematic relationships, confusing work prospects, and internal struggles, all while being bombarded on a daily basis with multiple accounts of tragedy, illness, mishaps, and death. One way to mitigate fear is through food. Research has shown that fear can precipitate eating; and interestingly enough, a recent study showed that even the threat of certain emotions may promote overeating.
There is still so much to know about how our emotions, biology, and circumstance intersect to cause overeating and related health problems. A first step in maintaining a healthy weight is to become aware of the role of emotions in your eating. Next time you reach for a donut, ask yourself the question of whether you are trying to satisfy a physical or emotional hunger. The latter – though real – can’t be satisfied by food alone.
Featured photo credit: Ali Inay via images.unsplash.com