Using food to manage your moods and feelings is a short term fix at best. We’ve got ways to get emotional eating under control.
By Kelly James-Enger
Carl Davis first started comforting himself with food as a child.
“I think whenever I felt stress, or whenever I felt unloved, which I often did, I would eat because that would make me feel good,” says the California resident. “I discovered cookies early on and we loved each other for a long time. And M&Ms—I still have a problem with M&Ms.”
While he’s become much more conscious of his food intake since having bariatric surgery, he still struggles sometimes. After he was rear-ended on the freeway recently, he bought chips and salsa and, of course, M&Ms to soothe himself.
“I was like, ‘I don’t care—I just want to feel good,’” he admits.
Davis’s story isn’t unusual. Many people turn to food to try to manage feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety, and loneliness. However, the short-term pleasure is often offset by long-term results like shame, weight gain, and worse overall health.
Many people with bipolar deal with cravings and weight gain associated with their psychotropic medications. That’s a separate issue from emotional eating, which has roots in psychological rather than physical causes.
Understanding why we use food to manage uncomfortable feelings is the first step to breaking free from the emotional eating cycle.
“Emotional eating is eating in response to an emotional need as opposed to a physiological need,” says Carol Milstone, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Ottawa, Ontario. “In general, it provides a form of distraction. It takes away the emotional pain that people are feeling.”
But that distraction is only temporary—and illusory. “The emotional pain is compounded because afterwards, they feel guilt … and they feel out of control,” Milstone says.
Yet it’s a normal reaction to reach for food when we’re unhappy or stressed, says nutritionist Elyse Resch, a registered dietitian and co-author of the influential guidebook Intuitive Eating. …
“We learn from the moment we’re born that food is comforting,” says Resch. “It’s an inborn thing to know that food is going to be soothing, and food is a socially acceptable way to soothe ourselves.” The pattern of “feel bad, eat to feel better” is often learned during childhood, says Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, an integrative medicine specialist for eating disorders and author of The Binge Eating and CompulsiveOvereating Workbook.
“A lot of it goes back to issues in childhood, which can be anything from poor relationships with parents … to a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect,” she says. “Foods high in sugar and fat light up the brain’s reward centers and give you a feeling of calmness or comfort that people long for.”
That’s what the Rev. Katie Norris was looking for as a child. When she felt lonely or upset, she would eat.
“I would come home from school and eat a lot of sugar,” says the El Cerrito, California, resident. “If I had a really bad day and there were no cookies or candy around, I would eat sugar out of the bag with a spoon.” Feeling physically or emotionally trapped, sad, or depressed still triggers the urge to eat. And she finds it hard to cut herself off from the “sweet stuff” once she starts indulging.
“There are ‘binge foods’ that make me feel worse, but in the moment make me feel better,” she says.
Anderson’s emotional eating also tends to worsen during a depressive phase. Yet she says anxiety is actually her biggest trigger.
“If I’m very anxious about something I definitely eat,” says Anderson, who lives in The Villages, Florida. “It’s like I cannot cram enough food into my mouth. Sometimes it’s actually good food, a bowl of scallop potatoes with ham cut up in it; other times it’s chips and sometimes sweets.”
Some emotional eaters binge in secret, adding to the shame. Kresic of Toronto only gives in to her cravings for sweets at night, when she’s alone. Despite having made a healthy, balanced dinner for her family, sometimes in the late hours all she can think about is food.
“I’m a very giving person, and I guess I’m a people pleaser—giving, giving, giving, and not getting back recognition,” she reflects. When she reaches for sugary treats, “I think, ‘It’s a reward for all the work I’ve done.’”
Sometimes she manages to overcome the cravings. Other nights, she winds up in her kitchen, unable to stop eating whatever sweet things she can find.
Depression doesn’t necessarily trigger her urge to binge. “But in a hypermanic stage, that’s when it’s really at its worst,” she says. “It feels good to feel good.”
Breaking the habit of reaching for food when you’re feeling uncomfortable, or sad, or anxious, or simply bored takes a two pronged effort—dealing with root causes and substituting alternate behaviors. Here are five strategies that can help:
1. Face those feelings
The expression “stuffing your feelings” perfectly describes the attempt to bury emotions under an avalanche of food. To break the pattern, you have to be willing to recognize and experience unpleasant emotions, to “sit with” those emotions instead of trying to sublimate them.
One way to do that is by becoming more mindful about identifying your mental state, says Milstone—perhaps anger, or loneliness, or feeling overwhelmed. “The first step is identifying when the stress [or emotion] is starting,” she explains.
Being mindful helps you recognize what is happening inside—and what feelings you’re trying to escape from. That may involve looking at the bigger picture of what troubles you, whether that’s things that happened in your past or something in the current state of affairs.
“The biggest thing I push is to help people identify issues that need to be dealt with—childhood issues that they haven’t dealt with, or lives that are out of control,” says Ross. When you address these, she says, you’ll find that the urge to “eat your feelings” dissipates.
2. Tap into true hunger
Emotional eating patterns often short-circuit the body’s natural sense of hunger and satiation. For Norris, added weight from overeating would send her too far in the other direction.
“I would under-eat to try to make up for eating all the sugar and then I would crave protein and fat, and I think that started me binging on other foods as well, because I was out of balance,” says Norris. “When you yo-yo diet, you get totally out of sync of when you’re hungry.”
One solution: intuitive eating. That means paying close attention to your physical sensations so that you’re eating only when you’re physically hungry—and not eating when you’re not. By tuning in to your body, you also learn to put down the fork (or the bag of chips) when you’re full, says Resch.
Ideally, over time you will default to a more healthful diet as you come to recognize how different foods affect you.
“Intuitive eating is the ability to trust your body to tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full, and which foods feel good and comfortable in your body,” says Resch. “Intuitive eating means you honor the signals your body gives you. It’s inside out, instead of outside-in.”
It also means that when you’re not hungry and you want to eat, you ask yourself what you really need. Maybe it’s soothing yourself with reassuring words instead of what’s in your refrigerator. Maybe it’s talking to another sympathetic soul, or journaling about what’s going on. Maybe it’s turning on a good comedy show as a way to lift your spirits. Unless you’re physically hungry, food will not fill that void.
3. Distract yourself
When you are tempted to eat, it helps to find a way to keep your mind off your cravings. This is especially useful when food becomes a form of entertainment to stave off boredom.
Physical activity can be effective—a walk around the block instead of into the kitchen, for example. Norris listens to music. (In fact, she has customized playlists for when she’s feeling manic or depressed.) Kresic uses deep-breathing techniques.
“You get a kind of equilibrium … if you can get your mind in balance, or equilibrium, you can resist those things generally speaking—except when you get nailed on the highway and then you just want to feel better,” he adds with a laugh.
Anderson volunteers for charities and knits and crochets everything from baby items to skull caps for military service members to winter hats for schoolchildren.
“My hands are so busy I don’t have the time to eat!” she says.
A distraction won’t address your underlying emotional issues, but it can divert you from using food as a stopgap.
4. Find other joys
The urge to use food to make yourself feel better may lessen if you add more pleasure of other kinds to your life.
Start a list of activities that make you happy and give you satisfaction, then look for ways to incorporate them into your routine. It can be as simple as a relaxing stroll in the park or spending time with someone whose company you enjoy.
Doing things that leave a positive afterglow will help you modulate your mood overall—and make you less likely to turn to food when you’re not truly hungry.
5. Eat right
Foods we turn to for comfort tend to be high in carbohydrates and the unholy trinity of poor diet: saturated fats, salt and sugar. Apparently our brains are wired to desire foods loaded with fat and calories because those foods were most efficient at keeping our ancestors alive during times when food was scarce—which is rarely the case nowadays.
Yet according to Resch, eating well is especially important when taking psychiatric medications.
“For medications to work well, you need the precursors for making the neurotransmitter receptors,” she says. “Eating balanced meals regularly will help the medications work better.”
We all know the drill: Aim for a diet that contains lean protein, whole grains, healthy fat, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, the connection between a nutrient-rich diet and better mental (and physical) health is strongly established—as is the association between junk food and depression. The better you eat, the more you strengthen your defenses against stress and the low moods that can tip you into emotional eating.
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