Emotional eating, defined, is eating in response to your emotions, not from being physically hungry. So, our emotions dictate when we eat, how much we eat, and even what types of foods we eat.
“In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.1 Data from 2015-2016 show that nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.” (https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm)
“According to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data, adult obesity rates now exceed 35% in seven states, 30% in 29 states and 25% in 48 states.” (https://www.stateofobesity.org/adult-obesity/).
Health risks associated with overweight and obesity include high bold pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, cancer, anxiety, and depression, among others.
Studies show that 75% of overeating is emotional. The most popular New Year’s resolution continues to be weight loss. Most people rely on restrictive diets (which can only be temporary) and intense workouts (which can lead to injury) instead of getting to the core issue of overeating, which often times is based on emotions, and not actual physical hunger.
Until we can process why we eat based on emotions and not hunger, the high statistics on an overweight culture will continue to rise and lead to frustration and discouragement for those on diets. According to Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, &Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007), “95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.”
From a very early age, many of us have been comforted by food. Whether it is being rewarded after a doctor visit with a lollipop, or going to get ice cream after winning a game, or getting a bottle when we cried as an infant when we weren’t necessarily hungry, but maybe uncomfortable, tired, stressed, or bored. We can easily make a connection with food and comfort.
• Do you crave specific food when you’re upset, like chocolate?
• Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues like seeing food advertised on TV?
• Do you eat out of boredom or stress?
• Do you often feel ashamed or guilty after eating?
Emotional hunger is sudden instead of gradual with physical hunger. Emotional hunger requires specific foods, whereas physical hunger is open to a variety of options. Emotional hunger needs instant satisfaction when physical hunger can wait. Keep in mind that 75% of hunger pangs are thirst, so drinking a full glass of water can help determine if you are thirsty or hungry.
Certain foods, especially carbohydrates that are high in sugar and fat, increase out neurotransmitters or ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brain like serotonin or dopamine. According to Louis Aronne, MD, founder and director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, “The areas of the brain that get activated or suppressed as a result of emotion and mood were impacted by fatty acid emulsion.” We describe these foods as ‘comfort foods’.
So, when we are stressed, tired, bored, or sad we tend to crave these calorie-dense foods instead of lower calorie foods like celery or carrots. Unlike eating because we are physically hungry, when we emotionally eat, we also tend to crave a specific type of food, like chocolate, or something crunchy or smooth.
An effective tool to help determine if someone is emotionally eating is journaling. I recommend journaling the food and drinks you consume, when you consume them, as well as your mood at the time. When you journal, you can also rank your hunger from 1-10, and see the types and amount of food you’re eating.
You can more easily see a pattern developing when you write down what happened that day to create the need to eat out of emotions. For example, if you just got in an argument with your spouse and you find yourself going right to the pantry to find cookies, the argument was likely the trigger for eating something specific and calorie-dense. Comfort foods are often associated with negative moods.
When you recognize the triggers, you can then manage emotional eating by distracting yourself and making a choice to avoid the triggers. Examples include: positive self-talk, taking a walk, deep breathing, calling a friend, cleaning a room, or organizing a closet. The new behaviors you choose to use, when practiced on a regular basis, can provide a healthier outlet to replace emotional eating. Cravings tend to last only a few minutes, so creating new habits during those challenging times can distract yourself from eating when you are not hungry.
As with any new changes in your lifestyle, it takes time to feel comfortable with new habits and maintain them. Be gentle with yourself in the process of making healthier choices for yourself, and make your health a priority for continued success.
JAMA. 2014;311(8):806-814. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.732
Why Comfort Foods Are So Comforting By Denise Mann, Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 25, 2011
Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, &Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders