‘Emotional eating’ is a term used to explain when we use food to soothe an emotional response such as stress, anger, hurt and even boredom. It is extremely common to turn to food when we experience certain emotions but why?
Why do we emotionally eat?
Your ‘why’ can often be different to someone else’s ‘why’ but one of the main reasons that food is used as a coping mechanism in stressful times is that highly palatable foods (like sugary, fatty foods) generally make us feel great – whilst we are eating them. Not only can food give us a hit of dopamine (our reward hormone), but eating in general has been found to release an ‘opioid’ into the brain which is the active ingredient of drugs such as cocaine and heroin (1). So yes, the calming, satisfying effect you feel when you eat is very real!
Another potential reason why some people are more prone to emotional eating then others is that when someone is under chronic stress for a long period of time, their stress response no longer reacts to adrenaline as much as it should and cortisol (our stress hormone) is released. Whereas adrenaline usually lowers hunger as the ‘fight or flight’ response doesn’t really want to prioritise digestion in an emergency, cortisol on the other hand has been shown to increase feelings of hunger, especially towards sugary or fatty foods (2).
Cortisol has been shown to increase feelings of hunger, especially towards sugary or fatty foods!
So is emotional eating bad?
Generally no! Eating when emotional can be a totally acceptable method to make yourself feel better when times get tough, but you may want to ask yourself several questions when you’re turning to food:
Are you REALLY making the most out of the food you are eating?
If you’re stood at the fridge, eating as quickly as you can or munching through foods mindlessly whilst watching the TV, chances are you aren’t really getting the best ‘bang for your buck’. If possible, why not try and be really mindful of your food as you eat it; make sure you sit down, take away distractions and really enjoy all of the flavours and textures of the food for maximum pleasure.
Are you eating enough throughout the day?
Sometimes ‘emotional eating’ might not be quite as emotional as we think. Often, it’s actually restriction and dieting throughout the day that can lead to a one way ticket to evening binges. When we under-eat, our bodies cannot distinguish between these self-imposed food restrictions and genuine food shortages (3). The result of this is that the metabolic rate slows down and hunger and appetite signals are increased meaning that no matter how ‘good’ you try to be, chances are that survival instinct is directing you towards the biscuit jar.
Looking into intuitive eating techniques and learning more about your own body and it’s hunger and fullness signals might be a really powerful way of shifting your mindset and creating a more harmonious relationship with food.
Sometimes ‘emotional eating’ might not be quite as emotional as we think.
What need has the eating met?
Maybe it was that eating helped you to feel less stressed or it brightened up a really boring Friday evening. Becoming more aware of your emotions in a non-judgemental way is a great way to start learning about any behavioural patterns when it comes to eating.
Are there other coping strategies in your toolbox?
Eating can be a really soothing experience when you’re feeling stressed but generally it’s great to have a variety of different things you can turn to so you’re not always relying on one coping strategy.
We are often relaxed by different things so this is the fun part trying to find out what works for you! It could be a nice bubble bath, a 10 minute meditation or even reading your favourite magazine!
So overall, emotional eating can play a part in our self-care routine and it is only really when emotional eating is the only thing you turn to in stressful times that you might start having issues. Like anything, moderation is key so figure out a variety of ways to getting that dopamine hit and when you are turning to food, make sure you enjoy every last bite!
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Feature article written by Thrive Expert: Laura Bryan Laura is a Msc Nutritional Therapist (mBANT) and offers one2one consultations. @mind_nourishing
1. Jetro J. Tuulari, Lauri Tuominen, Femke E. de Boer, Jussi Hirvonen, Semi Helin, Pirjo Nuutila, Lauri Nummenmaa. Feeding Releases Endogenous Opioids in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2017; 37 (34): 8284 DOI: 10.1523/ JNEUROSCI.0976-17.2017
2. Gluck ME, Geliebter tA, Hung J, Yahav E. Cortisol, Hunger, and desire to binge eat following a cold stress test in women with binge eating disorder. Psychosom Med. 2004;[66:87]6–81.
3. Goldsmith R, Joanisse D, Gallagher D, Pavlov K, Shamoon E, Leibel RL, et al. Effects of experimental weight perturbation on skeletal work efficiency, fuel utilization, and biochemistry in human subjects. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010;298:R79–88. https://doi. org/10.1152/ajpregu.00053.2009.