Ideally, we eat when we receive signals from the brain that tell us we are hungry and we stop eating when other signals tell us we have reached a point of satiety. These signals cause the hormone, ghrelin, to be released by the stomach when we are hungry. This “hunger hormone” increases one’s appetite. When we have eaten enough, the hormone called leptin is released by fat cells, telling us we are full so that, ideally, we stop eating. The different levels of these two hormones are how our hunger and satiety cycle should be controlled.
Unfortunately, people who eat emotionally override these hormones and instead eat because they are sad, lonely, empty, angry, or anxious. In such cases, eating has become a tool to help us feel better and to diminish our negative feelings. When this happens, we no longer respond to leptin and eat even when we are full or when not technically hungry.
Essentially this becomes habit within the mind and the body. Every action has a reaction, so when an emotional eater feels stress, they reach for a cookie. When they feel bored, they reach for a bag of chips. When they feel lonely, they reach for ice cream. Many emotional eaters do not see this pattern as it becomes so engrained in their behavioral profile.
Emotional eating often leads to overeating and secondarily to obesity. If you are a person who suffers from emotional eating, you eat according to how you feel instead of your hunger signals. You also tend to make poor food choices—eating potato chips, ice cream and other salty or sugary foods.
You may eat directly from the container and not stop until the container is empty. This often involves eating hundreds or thousands of calories in one sitting. The emotional eater cannot help but gain weight since their caloric intake is often off the chart.
Like drugs, food activates pleasure centers in the brain and donuts, candy, ice cream and chips are indeed addicting. Like the saying goes, “you can’t stop at just one,” – add to that a state of emotional vulnerability and you have the perfect storm.
Skills To Decrease Emotional Overeating
There are things you can do to reduce the negative effects of emotional eating. Let’s look at some of these:
- Recognize the connection. Once you recognize when you are eating because of emotions rather than eating for hunger alone, you can begin to realize the interplay between emotions and eating. This can lead to understanding your own triggers and the emotions involved, so you can deal with them in ways that are more positive.
- Find out the emotion behind the eating. If you find yourself mindlessly eating a junk food, you are likely overeating due to emotions. So if you can stop eating, even for a minute or two, you’ll begin to recognize what your emotions are. Did you just have a fight with your loved ones and now are feeling residual anger or remorse? Are you feeling lonely? Are you using food to reward yourself for some type of success? Are you simply bored? When you know the emotion, you can learn how to deal with it (or them) in healthy ways and not with food.
- Journal your thoughts. Pick up a pen and paper instead of a bag of potato chips. Write down, in whatever detail you can, exactly the emotions and thoughts that lead to binge eating. When you write things down in a journal, you can help to dissipate the magnitude of the emotions so you don’t feel so overwhelmed. You will naturally eat less.
- Own your emotions and change your eating habits instead. If you still feel like eating because of your emotions, don’t eat right out of the package, whether eating out of the pie tin, the potato chip bag, or the carton of ice cream. Take the extra time to serve up a single serving of the food of your choice onto a plate or bowl. This forces you to eat only so much food at a time. When you recognize that the plate or bowl is empty, you may be tricking yourself into eating just one serving with the same emotional benefits you get from eating the entire amount of food.
Emotional eating can lead to the complications of obesity, of which there are many. Following these tips, you can curb the amount of food you eat and you’ll have more room to eat healthier foods at mealtimes.