When eating is a way to tame anxiety instead of hunger, it is an emotion-driven behavior that adds calories, fat, cholesterol and inches to the waistline, while providing at best a temporary relief to feelings of stress and anxiety. So what is emotional eating, does it relieve stress or can it do more harm than good? In this post, we’ll take a look at its symptoms, learn how to distinguish it from real hunger, and how to prevent it from ruining our diet, our mood and our health by stopping it or simply bringing it under control.
How to Recognize Emotional Eating
The normal physiological response to emotional distress caused by a stressor is a noticeable loss of appetite. The stress reaction is a complex physiopsychological mobilization of resources that also causes the blood flow to be temporarily diverted from the digestive system to other parts of the body where it is most urgently needed to activate the fight or flight response, i.e. the musculature and the cardiovascular system. Thus, under normal functioning, the stomach contracts and hunger is reduced during times of stress and anxiety.
When there is an increase in appetite under stress, it may look like a real need for food, but in reality there are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger. The most significant difference is the speed at which the urge to eat is felt: emotional hunger appears suddenly or in a matter of minutes, while physically appropriate hunger occurs more gradually.
The next most significant difference is in the type of food that is usually craved during bouts of emotional eating. Specific high-calorie, high-fat and sugar foods, such as pizza, cookies or ice cream, are often the only foods that will satisfy the emotional need. When the appetite is caused by real physiological hunger, there is more willingness to eat a variety of different foods, even ones that we do not ordinarily like as much but that happen to be available (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, day-old soup).
A third difference is in the way emotional hunger triggers the anxiety to eat right away, whereas normal physical hunger very seldom has an anxiety component attached to it. Another difference is in the way emotional hunger appears to shut off our natural ability to regulate the amount of food we eat at any one sitting, i.e. the ability to stop when the stomach is full. When eating to satisfy an emotional need, there is higher likelihood that the eating will continue until all the food is consumed. Last but not least, guilt often accompanies emotional eating. Physical hunger is very seldom associated with negative emotions such as guilt or regret.
Is Emotional Eating Just a Problem for the Waistline?
In theory, a simple food fix in times of high stress and anxiety does not appear to be a problem. Indeed, occasional use of food to self-soothe and comfort negative feelings is a proven remedy that has been known since the beginning of time. However, the prolonged recourse to food to assuage emotional needs carries significant health risks, chief among them an increase in levels of cortisol, insulin, and lipids, which over time can lead to obesity and the development of metabolic syndrome.
The repeated use of food to alter negative emotions, unfortunately, tends to become less effective over time. This is due to physiological changes that take place, but principally due to the ineffectiveness of food as a coping mechanism. At best, comfort food can act as a distraction from worry. Often, comfort food becomes a metaphor of the “hunger” for the emotional closeness with significant others that could provide the comfort and help that would truly benefit the individual under stress.
How to Stop or Control Emotional Eating
When emotional eating becomes a habit while losing its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, there are ways to manage it and eventually stop it entirely. This is often possible without counseling or medication, but the latter may become necessary when emotional eating has become compulsive and the person simply does not have the psychological resources to bring it under control. The following suggestions may be helpful and worth a try, before seeking professional help.
- Recognize emotional eating, distinguish it from real hunger, and learn what triggers it.
- Improve the quantity and quality of sleep by napping or getting to bed earlier. Tiredness may increase the need for an energy boost. Take a nap or go to bed earlier instead.
- Use an effective stress management program, such as as yoga, exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques. Reducing stress is often the key to eating only when hungry.
- Give yourself a hunger reality check by asking, “Is my hunger physical or emotional?” Check when you ate the last time, and calculate whether you should be hungry now. Give time to the sudden craving to pass, while trying to make sense of it.
- A food diary where you note what and how much you eat may be very helpful in establishing the connection between stress, mood changes, sudden cravings, and emotional eating. Awareness is often the first step toward developing options and making better choices.
- Connect to a support network. When food is a substitute for companionship, friendship, and interpersonal connections, it is more likely to be the one comfort that is readily available. It is a better approach to reach out to family, friends, colleagues or a support group.
- Boredom can be a powerful trigger of emotional eating. You may snack healthy (low-fat, low-calorie, fresh fruit, vegetables with fat-free dip, unbuttered popcorn) or not at all by choosing to take a walk, watch a movie, play with your pet, listen to music, read, surf the Internet or call a friend.
- If nothing but comfort food is available and you recognize it clearly as triggered by stress or anxiety, try to practice moderation by dividing the bag of chips into smaller portions and eating only one or two servings. Eating only four bites, according to studies at the Food and Brand Laboratory of Cornell University, may be sufficient to create a positive memory of food that is recalled as just as good an experience than eating the whole thing.