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Emotional Eating: Fight Cravings and Find Alternatives

Do you find yourself wandering around the kitchen or racing to the pantry when you’re feeling down? Well, you are not alone. In fact, it is very common to find comfort food or reach food to suppress negative emotions. This is called emotional eating. Schools are reopening and many people will find the academic stress rushing to them, especially with this new way of learning. Using food occasionally to fill emotional needs is not a big issue, but it should not be the only way to deal with it. This article aims to explore emotional eating and to learn new ways to fight it. 


What is emotional eating?

(Image is courtesy of Unsplash)


Emotional eating is the tendency of people to respond to stressful, difficult feelings by eating, even when they are not experiencing physical hunger. This can be explained through sciencethe big three hormones: cortisol, dopamine and serotonin. Cortisol is our main stress hormone and regulates how our body uses macronutrients. For example, when we are anxious, cortisol makes us want to eat more carbs. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with rewards. It’s released when we are anticipating something pleasurable. Serotonin is known as ‘the happy chemical’. Carbs and chocolate easily boost serotonin levels, which improve your mood. 


There are different triggers in our daily lives that lead to emotional eating. Oftentimes, those emotions are negative, such as depression and stress.  During the pandemic, many people are forced to stay at home as outdoor activities are limited. Cabin fever, depression, and anxiety are easily built, thus we resort to finding food to fill the void. It is natural for us to reach out to food when we have those feelings because we often associate eating with a break from work and stress, such as lunchtime.  Another driver is boredom-eating gives us something to do and fills our time. When you feel empty and unfulfilled emotionally, food distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness with your life. As mentioned, food boosts serotonin, which may encourage excitement. This also links with dopamine, which brings up a different type of emotional eatinghappy eating. Think about how you celebrate special occasions and big achievements; don’t they often involve a huge platter of food? We treat ourselves with our favourite foods to bring joy. 


Is emotional eating bad for you?


Well, yes and no. Eating is perfectly acceptable to cope with intense and uncomfortable times. Feeling stressed from school? It is completely fine to open a bag of chips or popcorn and watch Netflix. Feeling frustrated about something? Scoop a bowl of ice cream to cheer you up. Feeling lonely? Spending an evening baking a cake may actually fill the void. It is a matter of choice. Emotional eating should be a concern when it is the ONLY way that copes with negativity. We usually crave junk foods rather than seeking out balanced and nutritional meals. This is detrimental to health if emotional eating always happens. Emotional hunger sometimes can’t be filled with food. Often, we beat ourselves after consuming unnecessary calories, resulting in a process regarded as the emotional eating cycle. 


Ways to stop emotional eating


If you find yourself opening up the fridge or snack cupboard every time you feel stressed or frustrated, don’t worry, here are some tips to help fight the habit. 

  • Identify your emotional eating triggers

The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is to get to know yourself. Most of the time, emotional eating is triggered by negative feelings, positive emotions such as rewarding yourself, or a childhood habit. One of the ways to identify the eating pattern is a food and mood diary. Every time you feel the need to reach out to comfort food, take a moment to figure out what causes the urge. Write down what you ate, what happened, and how you felt before, during, and after you ate. Over time, you will see a pattern emerge.

  • Find alternatives or distractions to feed your feelings

Once you identify your triggers, it is time to develop a healthier version. Most of the time, we do not know how to manage our emotions that don’t involve food. If you are depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better. If you are bored, find activities to do, such as reading, watching a movie, exercising, going out for a walk, etc. If you are stressed, take a break for a few minutes to relax. If you want to reward yourself, go shopping or hang out with your friends. Simply switching gears will help you to stop stress eating over time. 

  • Sip away stress

If you are prone to eating sweets when you are stressed, try drinking green tea instead. An October 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients found that matcha green tea, specifically, has stress-reducing properties. Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which has been shown to promote relaxation and boost levels of dopamine. 

  • Cultivate mindfulness

Mindfulness mediation is an effective strategy for decreasing emotional eating, according to an April 2014 review of 13 studies published in the journal Eating Behaviours. Meditation can be really simple; take a deep breath, live in the moment, and become aware of what is happening right now. Research shows that becoming more mindful helps you to lower the cortisol hormone. It also allows you to exercise more control over what you are doing right now in order to make food decisions thoughtfully. 

  • Believe in yourself

To establish or break a new habit, it is vital to look to yourself and stay motivated. It is unrealistic to be happy and successful all the time, but you should focus on your successes nonetheless. Trial-and-error is a good strategy. Push yourself to keep seeking solutions, rather than grieving your mistakes and giving up when you hit an obstacle. To accomplish anything, a positive mindset is the key to success. 

  • Seek professional help

If you have tried several self-help options but still struggle a lot, don’t hesitate to seek help and contact a mental health professional. Therapy can help you understand why you eat emotionally and how to learn how to cope with it. There may be also some underlying eating disorders associated with your emotional eating. Don’t go alone when you don’t have to. 

Here are some examples. There are plenty of them around the world. 

https://www.sarahberneche.com

https://www.westwind.mb.ca


Emotional eating is perfectly normal. It is bound to happen once in a while, and it is totally understandable that balancing school life, part-time jobs, extracurriculars, and the pandemic can create a tremendous amount of stress on everyone’s shoulders. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways to fight emotional eating and cravings. Feel free to create your own unique way to connect eating with feelings.


Most importantly, be easy on yourself. Emotional eating does not stem from nothing, there is always an underlying cause of this coping mechanism. Once you identify that, you can work backwards and attempt to unveil the trigger and therefore try to resolve or combat this issue. The biggest takeaway from this article is to approach this with caution. You do not want this to turn into anything bigger and more severe. Allow yourself to snack, eat when you are hungry, and be sure to eat at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any time in between. We need nourishment to thrive. The solution to emotional eating is NOT eliminating food intake; that treads into very dangerous territory. Find out what is bothering you and tackle that first and foremost. As we continue to get deeper into the new school year, keep these tips in mind and you may just find yourself conquering school with ease. Remember, stay healthy and positive!


References


Dryden-Edwards, R. (2017, August 18). Emotional Eating Treatment, Causes & Triggers.

Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/

article.htm

Iseman, C. (2019, February 25). Experts Reveal What Triggers Emotional Eating And How To

Control It. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/

emotional-eating-triggers_l_5c61c803e4b028d543169e60

Smith, M., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2019, October). Emotional Eating. Retrieved September 21,

2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/diets/emotional-eating.htm



Article author: Michelle Lam

Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Maria Giroux

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