Ever had a stressful day and the only thought in your mind was that I need some ice-cream to make this better? Or, you are feeling bored and listless and the way you choose to make time move is to binge on junk food. What about after a heart break? Chocolate can be quite a soothing outlet.
Reaching out for food to make yourself feel better can be described by a concept called emotional eating. It is a pattern of eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism then you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed. Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.
Even the food we crave is correlated to the feelings we re attempting to satiate for example chocolate is usually eaten when feeling alone or disappointed especially with a loved one. One of the reasons for this could be that chocolate contains a chemical called Phenylethylamine (EPA), which is the same chemical used in the brain that creates the feeling of romantic love. When people are anxious or sad they reach for dairy products to the like of ice-cream and milk. Milk products contain a chemical called Trytophan which increases serotonin levels in the brain, which induces a feeling of calmness and relaxation.
So how do we differentiate between emotional and physical hunger? An easy way to differentiate is that emotional hunger feels like a craving, it has a sudden onset and wants immediate gratification with a specific food while physical hunger is felt in the stomach, is gradual and can be satiated by a variety of food.
What can we do to break the cycle of emotional eating? First step we identify the triggers and bring awareness to these to break the cycle. Reflect on your emotions and check that you are not using food to cope or distract. Second step is to put off eating for five minutes and thirdly find alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfilment example call someone, go for a walk or read a good book.
To conclude while it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food. Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.