There are a number of reasons why we eat when we are not truly hungry. These reasons include having a poor night’s sleep, dehydration, certain medications, and emotions. This last one, emotions, can be an exceptionally tricky trigger for eating and hard to navigate, particularly figuring out what emotion we are experiencing and how it is affecting our eating habits. Emotions, especially strong negative ones such as anger, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear, can all contribute to high stress levels. These emotions can be due to the hassles of daily life or even larger life events. Not only do these stressful feelings strain our ability to cope, but can also affect our physical hunger levels.
Chronic stress affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Activation of the HPA axis results in secretion of cortisol, a glucocorticoid hormone that stimulates appetite and increases intake of highly palatable foods, such as those high in fats and refined sugars. This physical hunger, along with heightened stress, may lead an individual to turn to food to soothe their emotions, which in turn can lead to overeating or consuming excessive calories. This can result in a vicious cycle of using food to deal with emotions without addressing the root cause of the stress and continued use of high fat or sugary foods for comfort, a cycle known as emotional eating or stress eating.
Anyone can be at risk for emotional eating due to lifestyle or environment, however, genetics can play a role too. Certain genetic variations, such as variations in the gene MC4R which is involved with hunger regulation and appetite signaling, have been linked to an increased likelihood to engage in emotional or stress eating. The good news is that even if your genes put you at an increased risk, there are many strategies that you can use to help gain control. If you find yourself falling into this pattern of stressful eating and poor food choice, read on to better understand what emotional eating is, the triggers of emotional eating, and what you can do to break the cycle.
Emotional eating and weight loss
Weight loss is hard and emotional eating can make it even harder by sabotaging your efforts. When you are hungry, truly hungry, any food sounds good. With emotional eating, the cravings tend to be for “comfort” foods -those that are high in calories, sweet, and fatty. Many of these “comfort” foods are high in carbohydrates, which can help to increase serotonin levels in the body and improve short term mood. These foods are also highly palatable, or flavorful, which besides already being calorically dense can lead to excessive calorie intake. Emotional eating can affect not only what you eat, but how you eat as it is linked to increased mindless snacking, binge eating, grazing, or night time eating. Long term problems associated with emotional eating behaviors include elevated insulin levels over a period of time, which eventually can result in weight gain or obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and decreased serotonin levels. Failing to cope with stressful situations can further lead to disrupted sleep, which is also associated with weight gain.
Emotional eating triggers
Everyone deals with stress, but what causes stress varies greatly from person to person. Sources of stress may include:
- Relationship conflicts
- Fatigue or poor sleep
- Financial pressures
- Health problems
- Major life changes
- Loss of a close relationship
- Lack of control in certain situations
- Overwhelming responsibilities
Although some people may actually have decreased appetite during these situations, for those who engage in emotional eating, emotions and habits can become so intertwined they don’t even realize the emotion is causing the behavior. Whatever emotions or situations drive a person to overeat, often, the results are the same. The effect is temporary, the emotions return and the cycle starts again. Identifying the pattern is key to breaking the cycle. One of the easiest ways to determine underlying triggers is to keep a simple food log or diary. Challenge yourself to keep a food log for at least 7 days. You can use a small notebook, a spreadsheet, or your phone. There is no need to count calories or macros, simply make a note every time you are hungry—record time, your mood, hunger levels, what you are craving, and what you actually ate. Notice a pattern? When did you experience true hunger? What emotions or moods did you have that seemed to lead to cravings? What type of foods do you crave? Reflect on these patterns and consider how the emotions you experienced are related to your food choices. How did these food choices help or hurt you throughout the day or in relation to your goals? The goal is to be able to identify when you experienced true hunger vs. emotional hunger. If that connection is still not clear, make a note for the next 3 days to ask yourself before every meal, am I really hungry? Am I craving a specific food? If you have a craving, you are likely not experiencing true physical hunger, but instead emotional hunger. Taking the time to find alternative ways to deal with emotional hunger can be a significant step in taking back control.
Stress Coping Mechanisms
Take a moment and think about your current stress levels. How would classify them at this very moment? What do you currently do when your stress levels are high? How have you dealt with stressful situations in the past successfully without food? Are there any techniques you have tried that have not worked for you? Identifying what type of stress coping or management techniques that can be used in your daily life is a good start in preventing the tendency to engage in emotional eating. Take the time to create a list of what has worked for you in the past, what has not worked for you, and other techniques that you would like to try. Some potential activities for you to try may include:
- Take a walk
- Gardening, cleaning out the closet, or other household chores
- Call a friend or family member
- Write down what you are grateful for
- Practice yoga or mindful breathing
- Go outside
- Join a support group
- Listen to music
- Lend a hand to someone else who is in a stressful situation
Be present when you eat
Of course you’re present when you eat, where else would you be? We don’t mean your physical location, but instead taking the time to make sure that you're mindfully aware of what you are eating, your environment, and being engaged with your meal or snack. This practice is known as mindful eating, being fully present and aware of what you are putting in your body. Mindful eating takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it you may see a major improvement in your eating habits. At each meal or snack, make sure you sit down and turn off all distractions. You can create a soothing environment by dimming the lights or adjusting the temperature. Make sure you have put whatever you are consuming on a plate or in a clear glass. Take a moment and check in with yourself. What are your hunger levels? How is your mood? Are you excited for this meal or snack? Do you enjoy the foods that you have chosen or are being served? Simply notice all of your thoughts surrounding this meal or snack and let them pass through you. As you begin to eat, take the time to evaluate the texture, smell, and taste of your food. It may be helpful to put down your utensils after each bite or every few bites. Is each mouthful as enjoyable as the last? Try to slow down and take your time to truly pay attention to every mouthful. About midway through your experience, check in with yourself. What are your hunger levels now? Are you still enjoying your meal or snack? Are you starting to feel full? Each time you eat is an opportunity to experiment and learn. There may be times that you are rushed, distracted, or forget to practice mindful eating and that is okay! Your next meal or snack is just around the corner.