For some people, food isn’t just a source of fuel and a way to relieve hunger, but a tool to help them deal with stress. People who use food to reduce anxiety or relieve frustration are often referred to as emotional eaters. Some emotional eaters aren’t even aware that they’re using food as a way to handle other problems or as an emotional pick-me-up.
Not surprisingly, emotional eaters usually have more difficulty controlling their weight, partially because the foods they crave are usually higher in calories. Fortunately, there are ways to take control of your emotional eating habit and stop using food as a way to deal with emotions.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
When you’re under stress, the adrenal cortex, a gland that lies just above the kidney, pumps out more cortisol. Cortisol suppresses immunity, which is why you’re more likely to catch a cold or other infection when under stress, but it also increases cravings for foods that are high in carbs. This may be your body’s way of making sure you have enough glucose in your bloodstream during times of stress.
Are You an Emotional Eater?
People who are emotional eaters often eat unconsciously and continue to eat well past the point that their hunger is satisfied. If you’ve ever sat down with a bag of potato chips when you felt anxious and looked up to find the bag was gone, you were probably eating for emotional reasons rather than to ease hunger.
Because cortisol is a trigger for emotional eating, emotional eaters usually crave unhealthy foods, especially comfort foods that subconsciously remind them of less stressful times. So, ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, and macaroni-and-cheese are examples of foods they crave.
Emotional eaters eat in response to stress, and they usually override satiety signals. This means they continue to eat past the point of feeling full. That’s because they’re eating to satisfy an emotional urge not to reduce their appetite. When a craving strikes, they often feel a sense of urgency to satisfy it and will immediately seek out the comfort food they crave.
Many emotional eaters feel guilty when they overeat, and this only increases their stress levels and triggers more cravings. It’s a vicious cycle.
How Can Emotional Eaters Reign in Their Habit?
If you’re an emotional eater, be aware of what’s triggering you to indulge. Keep a food diary for a few weeks. Write down everything you eat, your level of hunger and your state of mind when you ate it. Were you anxious or down at the time? Were you worried about something in your life? If you’re an emotional eater, you’ll see a pattern of eating when you’re not hungry and munching in response to stress.
Once you recognize that you’re eating emotionally, retrain your brain. When you feel a craving hit, rate your level of hunger on a scale from 1 to 5. If you’re not a 4 or 5, substitute another stress-relieving activity to satisfy your “hunger.” Take a brisk walk outdoors, call a friend to chat, play with your pets or children or spend fifteen minutes working on your favorite hobby. They key is to break the cycle of eating to ease stress. Do this consistently, and you should see results
Lastly, make sure you’re consuming enough calories. If you’re restricting calories or starting the day without a healthy breakfast, you’re setting yourself up for cravings later on. Start the day with a lean source of protein and complex carbs like a bowl of oatmeal and eggs to keep your blood sugar levels stable and keep cravings at bay.
The Bottom Line?
You can overcome emotional eating. When you have a craving that’s unrelated to hunger, do something else enjoyable besides snack. Also, take steps to reduce stress levels in your life as much as possible.
Self Magazine. December 2010. “Be a Happy, Healthy Eater”
Journal of Obesity. Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 651936, 13 pages.