Ever caught yourself in the throes of a tough situation only to find comfort at the bottom of an ice cream tub or bag of chips? Do you tend to binge eat in the midst of challenging times or before a difficult confrontation? If yes, then you're an emotional eater, more commonly known as a stress eater. But before we get into the details of emotional eating or stress eating, it is important to understand what exactly constitutes 'stress'.
Are You Stressed?
We usually attribute stress to negative life events such as an exhausting work schedule or rocky relationship. However, anything that forces us to adjust, including new changes in life, can lead to stress. So even positive life events like getting married or receiving a promotion can lead to stress. Regardless of whether an event is good or bad, if the changes it brings puts a strain on our coping skills and adaptive resources, it results in the subjective feeling of stress. In other words, anything that upsets our personal balance in some way leads to a psychological and physiological response called stress and these events or demands are known as stressors.
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Stress and Hunger
We may be living in modern times but our bodies are still attuned to the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The primitive body, unable to differentiate between real danger and stress, biologically responds by increasing cortisol levels. This hormone activates the body's fight or flight response and triggers an increased heart rate, blood flow and appetite. Thus, this stress-led increased appetite results in cravings for so-called comfort foods. Most people are simply not aware that they overeat when they are stressed. Those who have been subject to continuous stress (job/school/family stress, exposure to crime or abuse) rather than momentary stress are at the risk of having chronically high levels of cortisol in their bodies. This contributes to developing chronic patterns of emotional eating.
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Eating Our Emotions
Emotional eating is the tendency to respond to stressful or difficult feelings by eating even when you are not actually hungry. Emotional hunger is often a craving for foods that are high in calories or carbohydrates. But these foods usually tend to have a low nutritional value. The foods that emotional eaters crave are often referred to as comfort foods like ice cream, cookies, chocolates, chips, French fries and pizza, to name a few. These foods, that are considered rewarding, are often those which are high in sugar, fat and salt. Some people eat because these 'rewarding foods' bring them pleasure. This feeling of pleasure is not very different from the one derived by consuming opioids or drugs and can be as addictive. The main similarity between the two involves the neurotransmitter dopamine which is associated with pleasure or reward. Greater amounts of dopamine are released when individuals consume foods that are considered to be more rewarding.
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Feeling in Control
Some people have learnt to block difficult feelings by gorging on food. They eat whenever they are sad, anxious or angry. They may eat to fill an emotional void or indulge in mindless eating. Some people eat to substitute emotional intimacy and to reduce loneliness, rejection or abandonment. Eating seems to calm them down as it may help them feel they have control over something in their life. Some people do not have a routine and may skip meals which makes the body crave and results in emotional eating. They may not eat the whole day and then binge in the night. The body is tired and hungry which makes it difficult for the brain to assess healthy options.
Women are more likely to report out of control and excessive eating. Men are more likely to report overeating. The lifetime prevalence of emotional eating and binge eating disorders is higher for women than men. This could be linked to the high premium placed on women to adhere to cultural norms of beauty.
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What You Can Do
If your patterns of emotional eating are leading to further negative emotions or experiences, here are a few steps you can take:
- Ask yourself am I hungry or just thirsty? Sometimes thirst is mistaken for hunger.
- Practice mindful eating. Switch off distractions like TV and phone. Focus on the food and being able to stop when feeling comfortable and not when full.
- Recognise the emotional triggers that make you stress eat.
- Integrate exercise into your routine. It helps to burn off calories and develop self-control. Exercise releases the same feel-good hormone as eating and helps to reduce craving.
- Keep a food diary of what and how much you eat to track overeating or emotional eating.
- Work with a mental health professional who can help you understand your relationship with food, and to rule out clinical conditions like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.
Dr Rizwana Nulwala is a Mumbai-based practising psychotherapist at Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services.
Disclaimer: Readers are recommended to avoid self-diagnosis and to consult a professional counsellor/medical doctor in case of doubt.
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