It’s likely you’re familiar with the term stress eating; it’s a rather common human response to eating food in order to soothe unpleasant emotions. The definition of emotional eating is one and the same, eating for the sake of feeling better.
What is emotional eating?
Simply stated, emotional eating is a stress response. Initially, high levels of stress may subdue an appetite, but if you’re exposed to stress chronically or your brain gets permanently stuck in that flight-or-fight stress response, you might be more inclined to eat, and eat a lot.
When the brain registers long term stress, it releases the hormone cortisol, triggering both appetite and motivation. These feelings of motivation are supposed to give you the encouragement to persevere through the stress, but more often than not, we find ourselves motivated to eat in order to deal with the other unpleasant emotions of stress.
Is emotional eating bad?
It’s hard to classify emotional eating as either good or bad. After all, it’s the body’s response to stress and sometimes we find ourselves with a limited ability to control the reactions of our body. However, there are definitely downsides to indulging in these cravings. For this reason, it’s important to work to combat these urges instead of giving into them.
Firstly, patterns have been noted where people who emotionally eat gravitate towards foods high in sugar and/or fat. If you’ve ever eaten out of stress, you might be familiar with this; who actually wants to eat that apple when the world is in shambles and you can make mac-and-cheese instead?
This tendency towards unhealthy foods might actually be connected to the hunger hormone ghrelin, as well as the feedback the brain receives from these kinds of food. If stress is temporarily numbed or reduced, the brain perceives this action of emotional eating as an effective method of protection against stress and is likely to demand more.
Consequently, frequent indulgence in these sorts of food products can lead to a number of health problems, which, instead of solving the initial difficulty with stress, exacerbates the stress even further.
What causes emotional eating?
While the overarching umbrella of stress can be a significant role player in emotional eating, there are more specific possibilities you may find yourself battling as well. While each case is different for each person, some causes of emotional eating may include:
- Dissatisfaction with one’s body – While it may seem counterintuitive, the emotions surrounding bodily dissatisfaction may cause emotional eating, which, in turn, can lead to greater dissatisfaction in a vicious cycle of eating followed by shame or guilt;
- Inability to handle emotions – If you’ve never been taught how to work through and handle difficult emotions, emotional eating may be the only coping mechanism you know. While you’re not to blame for this, it’s important to seek proper guidance in order to grow equipped in handling emotions and avoiding emotional eating;
- Being too tired or too hungry – If you’ve put off sleeping or aren’t eating the right amount for your body’s needs, your brain will loudly start demanding you take care of it. In an effort to fill yourself up and quell these signals, emotional eating is often likely.
You may have your own causes of emotional eating that you can identify in your life, but instead of abandoning emotional eating for another unhealthy coping mechanism, it’s best to take the time to identify the root cause of emotional eating and begin working your way out from there.
How can I control emotional eating?
If you are hoping to get a handle on emotional eating, there are some steps you can take to begin working healthy eating patterns back into your life:
- Get rid of temptation – If you don’t have junk food in your house, you’re not going to eat it. When you open the fridge, hoping for comfort, and only find fruits and vegetables, you might realize you’re not actually hungry, just emotional. Or, you might in fact grab that bunch of grapes and do your body a favor in the process;
- Take a walk – Stepping away for a minute to reset your brain is a helpful, productive way of managing stress. Taking the time to walk around the block, sit outside and meditate or take a drive with your music up can offer you the release and clarity of mind you needed in that moment;
- Sleep – Emotions are heightened when you’re lacking sleep, so getting on and maintaining a sleep routine can do wonders for your mental health;
- Practice yoga – Because of its interconnectedness with mind and body, yoga has countless benefits when it comes to relaxing the mind and strengthening the body. By incorporating a soothing practice like yoga into your day, you might find yourself more relaxed overall;
- Practice mindful eating – By paying attention to what and how much and how often you’re feeding your body, you may find yourself becoming more intentional with only eating the good stuff.
Additionally, you can always confidently seek help from another. If you are concerned that your emotional eating may have gotten out of hand, or have tried everything else and need continued support, help is here and recovery is possible.