After a rough meeting at the office, your day ends with an empty carton of ice cream and then a stomach ache. At a party where you don’t know anyone, you stand by the buffet table and graze. The kids have been a handful all day, so you have a second helping of pasta and a big glass of wine (or two) once they’re in bed.
Sometimes we reach for food to soothe our emotional cravings. When we’re anxious, angry, fatigued, overwhelmed or otherwise under stress, a seemingly hard-wired desire to overeat can take over.
If you eat when you’re not hungry, for a variety of reasons — it is a very real, and under-recognized problem. It affects many more of us to varying degrees than you might have guessed. The solutions often must go far beyond merely identifying the problem, because many emotional eaters do realize what they are doing and they do it anyway.
Why do our emotions trigger certain eating habits?
Understanding this connection is key to developing a healthy lifestyle , every bit as important as nutritional knowledge or even physical fitness. After all, it’s only by understanding the psychology of overeating that you’ll be able to counteract it and maintain healthy habits permanently, even through periods of stress and adversity.
Do you eat when you’re lonely? Depressed? Nervous?
Keeping a food journal helps identify problem emotions and their related food patterns by tracking not only what is eaten, but the emotions and feelings that often initiate this eating. Many experts believe that overeating and emotional eating share a similar pathway in the brain with recreational drugs. Emotional eating may actually lead to chemical changes in the brain that an individual experiences as pleasure, beyond the normal satisfaction one gets from eating when hungry. This kind of overeating provides a short-lived escape from stress, sadness and other negative emotions, but as with other addictions, the high is followed by a low and then the cycle starts all over again.
What are the triggers that cause overeating?
Major life changes that are stressful, fearful or anxiety-provoking, such as divorce, losing a job or a sudden financial crisis, as well as everyday stress, such as work, family, traffic and even the weather, can trigger emotional eating. Sometimes our emotions are so tightly connected with eating, that as soon as we feel a strong emotion, we reach for a particular food — it’s like our brains become conditioned to reach for the food as soon as the emotion hits.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re wondering whether you have a healthy relationship towards food:
• Do I eat when I’m hungry or are my emotions talking to me more often than not?
• Do I overindulge on occasion or do I have a regular routine of binge eating?
• Am I a mindless eater or do I savor my food most of the time?
• Am I obsessed with food? Am I constantly monitoring what I eat? (And do I feel a sense of failure when I “blow it”?)
To develop healthier coping strategies that will work for you, it’s important to learn more about the connections between your brain and your food choices.
• Pay attention to your body’s hunger cues and don’t skip meals.
• Be mindful when eating. Don’t eat in front of the television, in the car or standing up. Pay attention to your meal. Sit down in a comfortable place and enjoy it.
• Drink plenty of water.
• Give yourself encouragement. Think positively.
• Don’t beat yourself up when you slip.
• Try not to ignore your problems and negative feelings. Facing them may be hard, but it’s healthy.
• Use your support system; call a friend to talk through any problems you may be having.
• Write it all down! Keep not just a food log, but a journal describing emotions that trigger overindulgence.
• Get out of the house, exercise, read a book, take a bath — be good to yourself!
If you haven’t been able to help yourself, you may benefit from seeing a therapist or psychologist who specializes in emotional eating. Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness. When it comes to weight management and issues like emotional eating, psychology can explain the “why” of overeating.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a style that focuses on helping people change their way of thinking which in turn leads to a change in their behavior. Just like a weight loss program, resolving emotional eating is a journey. The first step is awareness and the second is being ready to change. Changing negative, self-defeating thoughts into more positive constructive thoughts is key.
Cheryl Forberg RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, Nutritionist for NBC’s The Biggest Loser and NYT bestselling author.