Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Everyone comfort eats every now and then. Sometimes it is in small ways, such buying an ice cream cone as a pick-me-up after a stressful day at school or nibbling on chocolate when you are studying. While small doses of stress eating aren’t necessarily physically dangerous, they can quickly develop into a habit. This habit can lead to weight gain or prevent you from losing weight. Comfort eating is particularly problematic when this is the first thing you think about when you want to calm down and soothe yourself.
How Can I Tell if I am Emotionally Eating?
- You eat when you are not physically hungry. Consider how long ago it was since you ate. Was it 3 hours ago or a half hour? Is your body sending you any clear signals that you are hungry? Is your stomach grumbling? Are you low in energy?
- It is hard to find food that satisfies you. For this reason, you don’t stop eating when you are full. You may find yourself scavenging for food or eating things you don’t even like.
- Cravings are triggered by an emotion such as anger, anxiety, or boredom etc.
- Comfort eating has a mindless component to it. You may not enjoy or taste the food because you are eating it mechanically, as if in a trance. Imagine sitting in front of the TV mindlessly popping chips into your mouth.
Why is Food so Comforting?
- Biology. When you are stressed out, your body is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, which makes you crave carbohydrates, sugar and fatty foods. Food is soothing due to the chemical changes it creates in your body. Chocolate is an excellent example. Chocolate boosts the “feel good” neurotransmitters and chemicals in your body that make you more alert and excited.
- Tune Out. Eating can be distracting. It can take your attention away from whatever is bothering you emotionally.
- Beliefs. You may also be conditioned to believe eating can ease pain. Many media ads push the therapeutic value of food. For example, a commercial may urge you to buy a particular candy because it will bring you “bliss” or “happiness.”
- Convenience. We enjoy things that are easy and convenient. Vending machines and fast food restaurants are always close at hand when you are fretting.
- Entertainment. It is difficult for many of us to deal with boredom and anxiety. Preparing food and eating it can be entertaining and fills gaps in time.
- Good Vibes. Emotional eating may be linked to your childhood. Perhaps home baked cookies or macaroni and cheese automatically trigger positive or comforting memories from the past.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
- Cortisol Cravings: Stress can bring on increased levels of cortisol, known as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol has a beneficial function in the body, but excessive levels of cortisol brought on by chronic stress can cause a slew of problems in the body. Among other things, high levels of cortisol can create cravings for salty and sweet foods. In previous centuries, this enabled people to bulk up on foods that would sustain them during times when food is scarce; however, in modern times and industrialized nations, when food is rarely scarce, this previously adaptive mechanism causes excess weight gain.
- Social Eating: Often people who are under stress will seek out social support, which is a great way to relieve stress. Unfortunately for dieters, when people get together — especially women — we tend to go out for a nice meal. Crying on your friend’s shoulder over a couple of hot fudge sundaes, going out for a night on the town and a plate full of fried appetizers, sharing a bowl of chips with the guys as you watch a game, or discussing the gory details of a nightmare date over cheesecake with your roommates are all social forms of emotional eating. It can make you feel better in the short term, but you may regret later.
- Nervous Energy: When stressed or anxious, many people become “orally fidgety.” Sometimes this leads to nail biting or teeth grinding, and often it leads to eating when not hungry. Many people, out of nervousness or boredom, just munch on chips or drink soda to give their mouths something to do.
- Stuffing Emotions: Another emotional reason that many people eat is to quiet uncomfortable emotions. People who are uncomfortable with confrontation may deal with frustrations in their marriage with a piece of cake, for example, rather than with open communication. Food can take the focus off of anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, and a host of other emotions we’d sometimes rather not feel, and is often used for this purpose.