Emotional eating is the act of eating in response to emotions rather than physical hunger. It is a common but often neglected problem that can not just lead to weight gain but also give rise to a host of other health problems like Diabetes, Hypertension, Heart disease, Cancer, etc.
Types of Emotional Eating Disorders
1. Anorexia Nervosa
People with Anorexia restrict their food intake, because they have a distorted perception of their bodies, and are extremely afraid of gaining weight. If an individual’s calorie intake is restricted, they may experience rapid weight loss and end up with an extremely low weight.
2. Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge Eating disorder is a major mental health issue today.A person who suffers from binge-eating disorder may often consume enormous amounts of food quickly. Frequently, they feel that have no or very little control over their eating habits.
3. Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia Nervosa is a complex eating disorder that starts with Binge eating. During a binge, it can be extremely difficult for someone with bulimia nervosa to control their eating.After binge eating , they try to compensate for the excessive food intake by indulging in compensatory behaviour which could involve the following :
Abusing medications (such as diuretics or laxatives)
intense physical activity
Fasting for long hours
Over time, this pattern of compensatory behaviors and binge eating may intensify into an uncontrollable compulsive behavior.
Is Binge eating or Emotional Eating the same as Over eating?
Binge Eating Disorder and Overeating are not synonymous or even similar.While overeating is an occasional experience that’s usually situational like indulging in your favorite food , or when you are stressed or during PMS.
BED is a more serious, frequent mental health condition.
Persons with BED, overeat compulsively, meaning they eat to feel good, even when they aren’t hungry.They are concerned and even feel guilty about it but find themselves helpless to control it.Binge eating is often about eating your emotions and not just food.
Causes of Emotional Eating
There are many different causes of emotional eating, but some of the most common include:
- Stress : Stress is a major trigger for emotional eating. When people are feeling stressed, they may turn to food for comfort or to numb their negative emotions.
- Anxiety : Anxiety is another common trigger for emotional eating. People who are feeling anxious may turn to food as a way to calm themselves down or to avoid their worries.
- Depression: People who are feeling depressed may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, including eating. However, they may still turn to food for comfort or to try to boost their mood.
- Boredom :When people are bored, they may turn to food as a way to fill their time or to find something to do.
- Loneliness:People who are feeling lonely may turn to food for comfort or companionship.
- Anger:Sometimes people try to suppres stheir anger and frustration by eating to calm themselves.
- Low Self Esteem :People with low self-esteem may turn to food as a way to reward themselves or to cope with their negative feelings about themselves.
Why some people indulge in Emotional Eating?
- Physiological response to stress: When people feel anxious, their bodies release stress hormones, such as cortisol. Cortisol can increase appetite and induce cravings for sugary, fatty, and salty foods.
- Reward system in the brain: Sugary and fatty foods activate the reward system in our brains, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy and pleasured. This can make us crave these foods more when we are feeling stressed, as we are looking for ways to feel better.In fact sugary foods can eb as addictive as alcohol and other drugs because they create a feeling of Euphoria through the release of Dopamine, but this is short lived and after a few hours we may start craving again.
- Association of food with comfort: Many people associate food with comfort and positive emotions. When they are feeling anxious, they may turn to food to soothe themselves and feel better.
- Distraction: Eating can be a way to distract oneself from anxious thoughts and feelings. It can also be a way to avoid or delay dealing with the source of anxiety.
- Lack of healthy coping mechanisms: Some people may not have developed healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with anxiety. When they feel anxious, they may turn to food because it is something that they know will make them feel better, even if only temporarily.
- Ghrelin :Ghrelin is a hormone that is produced in the stomach and small intestine. It is often referred to as the “hunger hormone” because it plays a role in regulating appetite and food intake.
When ghrelin levels are high, they signal to the brain that it is time to eat. When ghrelin levels are low, they signal to the brain that it is time to stop eating.
Research has shown that ghrelin levels may be higher in people who engage in emotional eating. This suggests that ghrelin may play a role in emotional eating behavior.
- Neuropeptides :Neuropeptides are small proteins that act as messengers in the brain and nervous system. They play a role in a wide range of functions, including appetite regulation, mood, and stress response.The neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in food craving, decision making, executive functioning, and impulsivity personality trait; all of which contribute to the development and maintenance of binge eating.
Research has shown that neuropeptides may play a role in emotional eating. For example, one study found that levels of the neuropeptide neuropeptide Y (NPY) were higher in people with emotional eating disorder than in people without the disorder. NPY is known to increase appetite and cravings for food.
Another study found that levels of the neuropeptide corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) were higher in people who were exposed to a stressful situation. CRH is known to increase appetite and cravings for food, especially for sugary and fatty foods.
These studies suggest that neuropeptides may play a role in emotional eating by increasing appetite and cravings for food when people are feeling stressed or emotional.
I would like to add that not everyone who experiences anxiety will eat when they are feeling anxious. Some people may experience a decrease in appetite when they are anxious. Additionally, some people may eat when they are anxious, but they may not be aware that their eating is related to their anxiety.
When people experience these emotions, they may turn to food for comfort. This is because food can release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. However, the feeling of pleasure is usually short-lived, and people may end up feeling more guilty and ashamed after emotional eating.
If you have already identified yourself as an Emotional Eater, here are ways for you to cope with Emotional Eating
- Identify your triggers. What are the situations, emotions, or activities that make you more likely to emotional eat? Once you know your triggers, you can start to develop strategies for coping with them in a healthier way.
- Find other ways to cope. When you feel the urge to emotional eat, try to find another way to cope with your emotions, such as going for a walk,talking to a friend, listening to music, or doing something relaxing.
- Don’t deprive yourself. It is important to allow yourself to enjoy your favorite foods from time to time in small portions. Depriving yourself will only make you more likely to binge on these foods when you do finally give in.
- Eat mindfully.Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to the present moment and your bodily sensations while you are eating. It involves slowing down your eating, savoring your food, and being aware of your hunger and fullness cues.
How to eat mindfully
- Find a quiet place to eat. Sit down at a table and avoid distractions, such as the TV, your phone, or computer.
- Take a few deep breaths before you start eating. This will help you to center yourself and focus on the present moment.
- Look at your food and notice its colors, textures, and smells. Take a moment to appreciate the food before you eat it.
- Take small bites and chew thoroughly. Savor the taste of your food and pay attention to how it feels in your mouth.
- Put down your fork or spoon between bites. This will help you to slow down your eating and become more aware of your hunger and fullness cues.Chew every bite to the count of 20 at least.
- Notice how your body feels as you eat. Are you feeling satisfied? Full? Uncomfortable? Pay attention to your body’s signals and stop eating when you are full.
- Seek professional help. If you are struggling to overcome emotional eating on your own, talk to a therapist or counselor. They can help you identify your underlying triggers and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Additional Tips to Cope with Emotional Eating
I started over eating when my Father was in the final stages of brain cancer.His condition was such that we needed to visit the emergency room very frequently.This would mean sleeping late or being half asleep , half alert for that dreaded phone call.I would often keep an overnight bag of supplies ready so that I would not waste any time in getting there.
Often I would lie in bed, sleepless with anxiety and watch something on my phone while stuffing myself with food, convincing myself that I was hungry whereas actually I was just trying to calm and comfort myself by eating and it was also my way of keeping myself awake. I was afraid if I slept I might not reach him within time in case of an emergency.I was married and lived separately from them, which added to my feelings of guilt.
So here are tips that helped me to tackle my emotional eating:
- Keep a food diary. Tracking what you eat and how you are feeling can help you identify patterns and triggers.I quickly switched to healthier options and smaller proportions like popcorn,almonds or roasted chana.
- Practice mindfulness. This involves paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment.Instead of seeking escape and comfort in food, try to understand the why and what and then the how of your feelings.Talk to yourself and ask yourself – How do you feel ? What is bothering you ?
- Get regular exercise. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve your mood.Despite being sleep deprived, I would make it a point to go for long walks everyday , this not only kept my weight in check but also made me feel more peaceful.
- Get enough sleep. When you are well-rested, you are better able to manage your emotions and make healthy choices.I would often sleep for only 4 hours a day and that would make me even more hungry and edgy.In my case I could not help my sleep but if possible try to get your timely 6-7 hours at least.Hit the bed as early as possible to get the most out of your sleep hours.
- Keep unhealthy foods away.Avoid keeping unhealthy foods in the house. I started keeping apples and almonds nearby so that i would only reach out for them when I needed to eat.
Remember, it is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself. It takes time to break the habit of emotional eating. Don’t get discouraged if you slip up from time to time. Just pick yourself up and keep going.
This post is part of Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter.