Emotional eating, stress eating, andbinge eating—these words often create a sense of shame and guilt as soon as we recall last Friday night when we sat on the couch and ate a bag of chips for “no apparent reason.” But before you allow that guilt to sink any deeper, remember that emotional eating is something that all humans will do from time to time.
The body is not only complex and connected with all its parts, but it is also extremely intelligent. When the brain senses danger, the body will immediately react in ways that ‘up the defense’ and ready the body for fight or flight. In the same way, when the brain senses feelings of sadness and discomfort, the body may react in ways to comfort and feel better.
Can you guess the place we seek to find comfort? You guessed it: food.
After a long stressful day of work, you get home, sit on the couch and zone out to TV and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. But did you know that this might just be the body’s way of trying to comfort you and offer a sense of grounding and calm? In fact, carbohydrates trigger a process in the body that ends up with the brain making new serotonin (the feel-good hormone). Therefore, you reach for the sweet treats because sugar is digested faster than fiber-rich carbs, so the temporary comfort comes quicker.
Recent studies have found that diets high in refined sugar may impair brain function and worsen symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods and pain. Nearly 95% of your serotonin is produced right in your gut, which is lined with millions of neurons. This means that your digestive system not only breaks down the food you eat, it also guides your emotions. Thus food and mood are directly connected.
It is helpful to know that those late night binges and oh-so-sweet sweet cravings aren’t just a matter of will power and control; it sometimes comes down to a matter of how you and your body have learned to cope. But since these coping patterns have been learned, they can also be unlearned.
If you want to start eating more based on your physical body and less on your emotional body, the first step is becoming aware of what’s going on. Get honest with yourself and think about how you might answer these questions:
- What cravings come up for you when you feel stressed?
- What urges do you have when you feel bored and lonely?
- How do you feel after you eat with mindfulness?
- How do you feel after you overeat?
- How do you feel after you eat a meal filled with distraction?
Becoming aware of your answers and what lies behind them can start to shed light on your relationship with food.
Mary Kline is co-owner of OnSite Wellness LLC. We partner with employers to achieve our mission of helping people improve their health and well-being.