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Put an End to Emotional Eating
ScaleWars Oct 2, 2014 8:45 am
Here's a trick question: Why do people eat?
On a basic level, you might say you eat to survive: Food provides fuel for the body. But in truth, we eat for lots of reasons, said Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center and author of Eat Q: Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence.
Many times people eat to feed their feelings both happy and sad. When feelings affect when, what, and how much you eat, it's called emotional eating.
However, emotional eating can often lead to overeating. When you eat to satisfy your emotions and not your physical hunger, it can be hard to stop even if your stomach is full.
Emotional Eating Triggers
Emotional eating patterns can start when you're very young. Well-meaning parents often link comfort and soothing with food, Albers-Bowling explained. You might remember your mom giving you a cookie when you fell and skinned your knee or your dad rewarding you with ice cream for A's on your report card. When you get older, you tend to gravitate back to those memories and patterns, she said. You turn to food because it's soothing, at least temporarily.
The media also promote emotional eating, Albers-Bowling said. In their advertising, manufacturers promise emotional benefits from eating their products. Chocolate, for instance, is often paired with the word "bliss." "These ads set an expectancy of how we should feel when we eat," she explained. "We are wooed by promise of how a particular food will make us feel."
Common emotional eating triggers include:
Stress. This is the No. 1 reason behind emotional eating. "When stressed, our bodies are flooded with the hormone cortisol, the same mechanism that makes us crave sugary, fatty, and salty foods," Albers-Bowling said. "It's a hardwired response, which is why we do it so naturally."
Boredom. When you have nothing else to do, you might find yourself opening the kitchen cabinets in search of something to eat.
Habits. Sometimes you eat when you come home from work or from running errands just because it's the pattern you always follow. You don't think about what time it is or whether you're about to have a meal.
Emotional Eating Research Insights
The topic of emotional eating has garnered much attention lately. In a study published in Eating Behaviors in August 2013, researchers from Rutgers University reported that people who have attachment anxiety those who fear relationships and intimacy are often emotional eaters. They interpret their anxiety as hunger and eat to soothe their feelings.
It's easy to assume that people let their emotions guide their eating only when they're sad or depressed. But a study published in Appetite in August 2013 found that people overeat when they're happy too. Researchers from the Netherlands found that students who were happy ate more than those whose emotions were on a more even keel.
Emotional Eating and Comfort Food Cravings
Emotional eaters tend to gravitate toward comfort foods foods that bring back fond memories, often of their youth. Comfort foods are usually prepared in a simple, homey way and tend to be high in fat and loaded with calories: macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken, cheesecake, and chocolate candy.
It's hard to say no to comfort foods, Albers-Bowling said. You think eating that Milky Way will make you feel better because it has before. Your expectations drive what you want to eat, and you can get caught in a cycle of craving.
It's not easy, but it's important to distinguish between emotional eating and physical hunger. When you're eating to soothe emotions, "you just don't want something to eat you want barbecued potato chips and nothing else will do," Albers-Bowling said. Also, emotional eating sneaks up on you out of the blue. "You want something right now," she pointed out. "True hunger grows gradually in intensity and is accompanied by a rumbling stomach or lower energy."
Emotional Eating Busters
It's possible, however, to put limits and boundaries on your emotional eating habits. Albers-Bowling's tips to conquer emotional eating include:
Become a mindful eater. Mindful eating consists of eating slowly, savoring every bite, smelling the aroma of your food, and looking at it carefully before putting it in your mouth. "Just be very present mentally when you are eating," Albers-Bowling said.
Build impulse control through practice. Play the game Simon Says with yourself throughout the day. Take a few bites and say "stop." When you're having a drink, say "stop" in the middle. Building up your impulse control in this way will help you stop eating when you're doing it for the wrong reasons.
Use your nondominant hand to eat. A 2011 study by researchers from the University of Southern California found that this practical strategy can reduce the amount that you eat. "This action breaks up the automatic hand-to-mouth flow and encourages you to think about each bite," Albers-Bowling said.
Cool off cravings. Daydreaming about the taste of a particular food, like a chocolate bar, increases cravings it stimulates the brain to begin anticipating the flavor to the point that you might begin to salivate. So put a different slant on your tongue's expectations. For example, think of a mound of whipped cream as shaving cream. This instantly cools down cravings and reroutes your anticipatory response, Albers-Bowling said.
Practice deep breathing. It sounds simple, but adding oxygen to your brain helps you think more clearly and make better food decisions, particularly when you're stressed.
You'll eat better and healthier foods if you don't let your emotions guide your menu choices. And when you do eat, pay attention to what's on your plate and savor every bite.