THE BLOG
11/10/2014 01:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Your Practical Guide to Break Free From Emotional Eating

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I suspect that you are reading this because you may have found yourself acting like a hot mess and marching straight to the store to buy a dozen cupcakes when you felt upset. In the United States, you along with more than 20 million women and 10 million men suffer have answered "yes" to these same questions (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).

Your stress hormones make you do it -- here's how it works. Imagine driving down the road and suddenly there is a car that cuts your off. You swerve, your heart gets jumpy and you feel anxiety in your stomach. When you experience sudden danger, you brain sends a signal to your body for hormonal release of cortisol. However, these emergencies and situations don't last forever. Your stress response system has built into it the capacity to turn itself off. What stress hormone does is act as a shut off switch when it reaches the brain. BUT, chronic stress is another story completely (Marano, 2003).

The system does not turn off. As the situations that give rise to stress endure, they keep ramping up production of cortisol. With that, other "nodes" of the long-term stress circuit are activated. This leads to sugar, high fat and carbohydrate cravings to literally comfort your brain and calm your body.

When we eat comfort foods, it raises our insulin levels. There is a direct correlation between the increased levels of serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitter) and increased levels of insulin. Basically our body is telling our brain "you can be happy now." And sugar -- or any carbohydrate for that matter -- causes our body to release insulin. Refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, white bread, pasta lead to a more intense insulin surge than do complex carbohydrates like vegetables and whole grains (PGray, 2014). Do you see how this makes you gain weight?

It's not all science. There are multiple habits what we form along the way that make it "ok" for us to do this.

  • Childhood habits. Parents who calmed you down with lolly pops, fixed your boo-boos with candy and made your favorite meal to celebrate your success made a big impact on how you ultimately handle your emotions as an adult. It would be crazy if those childhood habits didn't greatly influence us now. When in times of stress, there are a few things that can be highly comforting and rewarding as food. Many of us just fall into these habits because we don't develop effective coping strategies which are more suitable for our current lifestyle (Scott, 2014).
  • Social environment. When we are under stress, we seek out social support, which is a great way to relieve stress. Unfortunately, when we get together, we tend to go out for a nice meal or have a few drinks. Think about the last time you got together for girls night to discuss dating nightmares, work stress and a terrible week of final exams. I guarantee that some form of social emotional eating took place.
  • You don't have what you want. This also translates into feeling powerless, hopeless and even sets you up for failure. This can go on for days, month or even years. Yes, crying about a boyfriend break up over a bowl of ice cream is one thing, but not having what you want long term is a lot more serious. This may be not having a job you enjoy, withstanding sexual harassment and an abusive work environment, having a relationship that literally eats you alive, or missing your hometown after a move.

What are the best strategies to fix emotional eating?

  1. Journal. Know your feelings. Learn about YOU. Find out what triggers you and why and how you feel afterwards. Get honest with yourself and work on the feelings that made you do it. When you have an emotional outburst and you are about to eat your feelings away, pull out a piece of paper and write down what feeling you are experiencing. This will also help you realize what you need to change in order to be less stressed and get what you want out of life.
  2. Become your best friend. Emotional eating isn't helped by persistent negative self-talk -- the judgments we make about our eating, bodies or feelings, or our expectations of how we should eat, look or behave. We all engage in some sort of self-sabotage. Do you remember the movie Mean Girls when those gorgeous, hot, young, sexy girls were standing in front of the mirror saying "ugh I have big pores," "just five more pounds." That sounds absurd -- they are HOT. The reality is that we all do this in one way or another whether we weigh 120, 140 or 240 pounds.
  3. Eat. Many of us automatically don't eat the next day because we ate so much the day before. WRONG! Remember what happens when insulin is low? You crave more sugar and carbs to get you high again. Don't let that happen to you. Balance yourself out with a protein shake with berries for breakfast and a nice salad for lunch. Remember to drink water too.
  4. Get high. On endorphins that is. Exercise is proven to cause happiness though the hormones that our body releases called endorphins. Have you ever heard of runners' high? Exactly. Strap your laces and get outside or go to the gym that you haven't been to in months. Can't run? Simply walk it out. Sooth yourself with your favorite music while you are at it. It really does help.
  5. Lower sugar consumption.You eat sugar, you crave sugar. If you always get high on sugar and experience a "feel good" feeling, your body wants to come back to that feeling even more aggressively than before. If you cut sugar out completely, you will notice that even if you do binge, it will be 1/2 the calories and 1/2 the sugary goodies than normal.

Resources:

Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, (2011). Get The Facts on Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders on November 7th, 2014.

Scott, E. (2014). Stress and Emotional Eating: What Causes Emotional Eating? Retrieved from http://stress.about.com/od/unhealthybehaviors/a/eating.htm on October 11th, 2014

Marano, H. (2003). Stress and Eating. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200311/stress-and-eating on October 11th, 2014

Gray, N. (2014). Stress Eating? New Research Suggests Stress Hormones Impact Taste Perception. Retrieved from http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Stress-eating-New-research-suggests-stress-hormones-impact-taste-perception on October 11th, 2014.