Eating to soothe emotions doesn’t help in the long run. Try these strategies!
By Kelly James-Enger
Wayne, of Wisconsin learned to “eat his feelings” at an early age.
“I was always the bullied kid on the playground, and it seemed like I was two paces behind everyone else,” Wayne recalls. “We had a local grocery store right down the road, and across the street, a donut shop. I would go there and buy something and eat, and then it seemed like everything went away.”
Wayne found that high-fat, high-sugar foods helped relieve the stress he experienced both at school and home. Eating was the only thing that seemed to make him feel better. He began hiding food—under his bed, in his closet, and even in the garage—and eating it in secret.
By the time he was an adult and diagnosed with depression, he knew every local fast food menu by heart, and hit the drive-through windows whenever he was upset, angry, or unhappy. His weight skyrocketed, which only fed his depression.
Many people turn to food to try to manage feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety, and loneliness. However, the short-term pleasure is often offset by long-term results like shame, weight gain, and worse overall health. Understanding why people use food to manage uncomfortable feelings is the first step to breaking free from the emotional eating cycle.
“Emotional eating is eating in response to an emotional need as opposed to a physiological need,” says Carol Milstone, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Ottawa, Ontario. “In general, it provides a form of distraction. It takes away the emotional pain that people are feeling.”
But that distraction is only temporary—and illusory. “The emotional pain is compounded because afterwards, they feel guilt … and they feel out of control,” she says.
Yet it’s a normal reaction to reach for food when we’re unhappy or stressed, says nutritionist Elyse Resch, a registered dietitian and co-author of the influential guidebook Intuitive Eating.
Sweets … worked quite effectively at numbing feelings of absolute pain and loneliness, and I was hooked.
“We learn from the moment we’re born that food is comforting,” says Resch. “It’s an inborn thing to know that food is going to be soothing, and food is a socially acceptable way to soothe ourselves.”
The pattern of “feel bad, eat to feel better” is often learned during childhood, says Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, an integrative medicine specialist for eating disorders and author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook.
“A lot of it goes back to issues in childhood, which can be anything from poor relationships with parents … to a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect,” she says. “Foods high in sugar and fat light up the brain’s reward centers and give you a feeling of calmness or comfort that people long for.”
Nadia was in high school when she first started experiencing symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as depression. Like Wayne, she learned early on that eating made her feel better.
The Toronto woman describes her family of origin as “severely dysfunctional,” and feel-good treats as “the only good thing at our house.”
Nadia’s favorite comfort food? Anything high in sugar.
“Sweets, I soon discovered, worked quite effectively at numbing feelings of absolute pain and loneliness, and I was hooked,” she reflects. “The binging on them came when I was depressed. Binging on sweets is my preference to this day.”
Kelly of Ohio, has a similar relationship with food and anxiety. It worsened after emergency colon surgery and a hospital stay in early 2013 triggered extreme anxiety—and also expanded what she was able to eat.
“This included healthy foods such as tomatoes, oranges and so forth, which was great—but it also included my personal weakness: milk chocolate. This created the perfect storm,” explains Kelly. “I could suddenly eat chocolate again, something I hadn’t tasted in six long years, right when I was under the biggest stress of my life.
“So, I gobbled chocolate whenever I felt fearful, whenever I felt as though I had no control over my life, whenever I worried that I would never be healthy again, whenever I feared that I couldn’t pay my bills.”
Breaking the habit of reaching for food when you’re feeling uncomfortable, or sad, or anxious, or simply bored takes a two-pronged effort—dealing with root causes and substituting alternate behaviors. Here are five strategies that can help:
1. Face those feelings
The expression “stuffing your feelings” perfectly describes the attempt to bury emotions under an avalanche of food. To break the pattern, you have to be willing to recognize and experience unpleasant emotions, to “sit with” those emotions instead of trying to sublimate them.
One way to do that is by becoming more mindful about identifying your mental state, says Milstone—perhaps anger, or loneliness, or feeling overwhelmed.
“The first step is identifying when the stress [or emotion] is starting,” explains Milstone.
Being mindful helps you recognize what is happening inside—and what you’re trying to escape from. That may involve looking at the bigger picture of what troubles you, whether that’s things that happened in your past or something in the current state of affairs.
“The biggest thing I push is to help people identify issues that need to be dealt with—childhood issues that they haven’t dealt with, or lives that are out of control,” says Ross. As you come to terms with the powerful emotions that you’re trying to numb, you’ll be able to feed yourself with compassion, not fries or chocolate bars.
For Wayne, that meant learning how to move past trauma from his youth and let go of his anger toward his tormentors.
“The biggest turning point was that I had to learn to love myself,” says Wayne. “I found inner peace and forgave all the people who had treated me so badly … and I felt better.”
2. Tap into hunger
Emotional eating patterns often short-circuit the body’s natural sense of hunger and satiation.
One solution: intuitive eating. That means paying close attention to your physical sensations so that you’re eating only when you’re physically hungry—and not eating when you’re not. By tuning in to your body, you also learn to put down the fork (or the bag of chips) when you’re full, says Resch.
Ideally, over time you will default to a more healthful diet as you come to recognize how different foods affect you.
Before I reach for something ‘bad’ to calm my nerves … look at the situation and think about what is eating going to get me.
“Intuitive eating is the ability to trust your body to tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full, and which foods feel good and comfortable in your body,” says Resch. “Intuitive eating means you honor the signals your body gives you. It’s inside-out, instead of outside-in.”
It also means that when you’re not hungry and you want to eat, you ask yourself what you really need. Maybe it’s soothing yourself with reassuring words instead of what’s in your refrigerator. Maybe it’s talking to a sympathetic soul, or journaling about what’s going on. Maybe it’s turning on a good comedy show as a way to lift your spirits.
Unless you’re physically hungry, food will not fill that void.
“Before I reach for something ‘bad’ to calm my nerves, I’ve learned I can find a peaceful spot, sit back and breathe, and look at the situation and think about what is eating going to get me,” says Wayne. “If I’m reaching for the extra pieces of pizza in the fridge and I’m not hungry, I won’t get anywhere.”
3. Distract yourself
When you are tempted to eat, it helps to find a way to keep your mind off your cravings. This is especially useful when food becomes a form of entertainment to stave off boredom. For example, Nadia paints and pursues other crafts to keep herself engaged.
Physical activity can be an effective distraction—a walk around the block instead of into the kitchen, for example. Plus, regular exercise boosts mood and lessens symptoms of depression and anxiety. Kelly sees benefits from her walking routine.
She also uses deep breathing and visualization techniques when she’s feeling anxious, which helps her to not reach for the chocolate.
A distraction won’t address your underlying emotional issues, but it can keep you from using food as a stopgap.
4. Find other joys
The urge to use food to make yourself feel better may lessen if you add more pleasure of other kinds to your life.
Start a list of activities that make you happy and give you satisfaction, then look for ways to incorporate them into your routine. It can be as simple as a relaxing stroll in the park or spending time with someone whose company you enjoy.
The first step is identifying when the stress [or emotion] is starting.
Doing things that leave a positive afterglow will help you modulate your mood overall—and make you less likely to turn to food when you’re not truly hungry.
5. Eat right
Foods we turn to for comfort tend to be high in carbohydrates and the unholy trinity of poor diet: saturated fats, salt and sugar. Apparently our brains are wired to desire foods loaded with fat and calories because those foods were most efficient at keeping our ancestors alive during times when food was scarce—which is rarely the case nowadays.
Yet according to Resch, eating well is especially important when taking psychiatric medications.
“For medications to work well, you need the precursors for making the neurotransmitter receptors,” she says. “Eating balanced meals regularly will help the medications work better.”
We all know the drill: Aim for a diet that contains lean protein, whole grains, healthy fat, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Furthermore, the connection between a nutrient-rich diet and better mental (and physical) health is strongly established—as is the association between junk food and depression. The better you eat, the more you strengthen your defenses against stress and the low moods that can tip you into emotional eating.
Printed as “Emotional Eating: Food vs. Feelings,” esperanza Fall 2014
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