05/24/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Emotional Eating, or Is It Really Just Poor Nutrition?

I understand that some people truly deal with emotional eating, but lately with the hype about low- or no-carb diets, I am encountering more and more people coming to see me with complaints of experiencing fatigue along with intense carb cravings. Here's a situation I see all the time: A client comes to me saying that she thinks about sweets all day long. She can't stop her cravings, and she's beating herself up over her self-proclaimed "emotional eating." She may even think she's addicted to carbs. A client of this exact profile came into my office this week and I had to tell her, after assessing her diet history, that her problem isn't emotional eating, it's poor nutrition. The solution is simple: eating balanced.

The client who came to my office this week was near her goal weight, working on those frustrating last 10 pounds. She was exercising daily. She was eating what she considered to be a healthy diet, replete with healthy fats from things like coconut and almonds, and superfoods like blueberries, all of which is great. But she was eating barely any carbohydrates! She was not giving her body the fuel it needs for brain function, let alone intense exercise.

The relationship between macronutrients and cravings is complex. Hunger is a physical response, but it is mainly caused by a hormone called ghrelin, which, when it builds up in the body, will lead to very pleasure-driven or hedonic eating. Also, ghrelin spikes as you lose weight, and does so especially in women when they exercise. We experience this emotionally, as a feeling akin to addiction, but the cause is physical. I have found, in working with thousands of clients, that if I control ghrelin by putting people on a balanced diet -- that is, a combination of protein, fats and carbohydrates -- they within a couple of weeks find that their cravings are reduced and their overall feeling is better. That was the story of the client I described above. It can be your story, too. Low-carb or no-carb is definitely not for everyone!

The problem is in maintaining balance, which is what makes people feel they need to cut out the carbohydrates to begin with. Daily pizza and bagels do not create balance. But by the same token, cutting carbs entirely and eating just salad and chicken for lunch or not adding carbs during other meals, especially if you are exercising, doesn't give you enough fuel. Eat the chicken and salad, sure, but supplement it with nutrition-rich carbohydrates: oats, quinoa, brown rice, sweet potato, beans. These convert to sugar more slowly in your body, and provide fuel long after you eat them. And in general, you should be trying to eat the nutrient profile you need to fuel your activity level. If you are active, you need carbs.

Here's the bottom line: If you can't control your emotions around food, look for a physical cause first. Ask yourself, am I adding carbs during my meals? And in particular, make sure your macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) are in balance. You'll find once you become a nutritional eater, the emotional eater in you will go quiet.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning weight loss center in San Francisco. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the founder of Eating Free and author of his new book Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger, and Keep Weight Off for Good!

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