This year we got a little closer to understanding why we turn to ice cream and chocolate whenever we get stressed out, crabby or overly emotional. Yes, we still have a lot to learn. Our emotions and eating behavior are incredibly complex. This blog looks back at what new clinical research taught us about emotional eating this year.
1) Friends don't let friends eat cookies according to the title of a study by Mary Howland, Jeffrey Hunger and Traci Mann in the journal Appetite (2012). Your friends impact how you feel about food. In their clever study, two out of three friends were secretly instructed to restrict tempting foods while in the presence of a third friend. The result? The third person restricted what they ate while eating with these friends and continued to do so when alone. In a different study, Dr. Julie Exline, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, found that people-pleasers are particularly vulnerable to eating to make others feel comfortable even if they aren't hungry.
Tip: Who you eat with matters. If you are trying to eat healthier, it might be worth your while to think carefully about who you eat with on a daily basis. Notice how they impact the way you eat. Also, if you are a people-pleaser by nature, be cautious of eating just because other people are snacking and you don't want them to feel bad. Remind yourself to focus on taking care of you!
2) Work doesn't help your waistline? People who endorsed feeling burned out on the job reported more emotional eating and uncontrolled eating. It's no big surprise. Chronic stress, no matter where it comes from, impacts your cortisol levels, the stress hormone. Increases in cortisol makes you crave sugary, fatty foods.
Tip: If you are struggling with your waistline, take a good hard look at your job stress to determine if it contributes to your emotional eating. Ask yourself if your job is worth your health. If you can't change your job, find manageable ways to soothe and calm yourself without calories (see my book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food).
3) Got sleep? Feeling exhausted and low energy is dangerous to your eating habits. In a 2012 study by Andrew Calvin, a fellow in cardiovascular disease and assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, Rochester subjects who got 2/3 of their normal sleep time ate more food than those who sleep their typical amount -- 549 extra calories a day, to be exact!
Tip: The importance of sleep can't be underestimated. If you are trying to curb emotional eating, you have to get your Zzzs. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it the best you can.
4) Don't fight it! Rethink it. Suppressing your feelings turns out to be not very helpful for curbing emotional eating. In other words, telling yourself "just don't feel that way" is a recipe for trouble. Subjects in a study were either given no instructions, were taught how to suppress their emotions or reappraise them (think about them in a different, more positive way). The "reappraisal" condition was helpful in preventing people from beginning to eat.
Tip: Don't try to talk yourself out of your feelings or smother them with food. Put your feelings into a new perspective. Think about whether this is really the worst case scenario or say to yourself, "This too will pass." Or, try to be compassionate toward yourself and validate that it's "okay" to feel the way you do.
5) Don't forget your biology. Does stress inevitably lead to comfort eating? In most cases, it does. But for some people, stress means a lack of appetite and turning away from food. Scientists are still unraveling the complex relationship between food and our bodies. Leptin, a chemical in the body, has been shown to regulate satiety when elevated. In this study, subjects were put in a stressful situation and then their leptin levels were taken. Increases in leptin predicted a lower intake of comfort food.
Tip: There is still a lot to learn about the complex reasons people eat comfort foods. Remember that eating (or not eating) when you are stressed is, in part, a biological response that involves many hormones, brain structures and chemicals. Therefore, don't get so hard on yourself. Instead, at this point, just know your patterns. Identify what kind of unique stress response you have when you get overwhelmed. This can help you prepare and find strategies for eating more mindfully and curbing emotional eating.
We can look forward to new insights and clinical research in 2013 to help us understand why chocolate often looks like the "right" answer after a horribly stressful day.
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Dr. Albers is a psychologist for the Cleveland Clinic and author of five books on mindful eating including 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating Mindfully 2nd edition (order now!). Her books have been noted in O, the Oprah magazine, Shape, Prevention, Health etc. and seen on The Dr. Oz Show on TV. www.eatingmindfully.com.
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