If you've ever eaten because you were depressed, worried or stressed out, you're not alone. It's called "emotional eating" and we do it because, at least temporarily, eating food that's not very good for us can make us feel better.
Recognizing the link between emotion and eating isn't new. During World War I, people noticed that soldiers' widows frequently put on weight. They discovered that the widows were using food as a way to cope with the grief and loss. There's even have a word for it in German, "kummerspeck." Literally translated it means "grief bacon."
While emotional eating was known, it wasn't studied much because food wasn't as readily available as it is today. Obesity was a problem generally confined to rich people.
As food became more available, and with the huge proliferation of fast and convenience foods, eating disorders started appearing in more middle and lower income groups. The number of people who engaged in physical work steadily dropped as labor saving inventions came out. The combination of all these factors led to increasingly higher levels of obesity.
Scientists started looking into the problem to find out the underlying mechanisms. One of the causes they discovered were brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Specifically, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
It seems that when serotonin levels in the brain are higher, the person is more calm. Serotonin has an anxiety reducing effect and in some people it promotes drowsiness. Keep serotonin levels stable in the brain, and it's associated with a positive mood state.
That's where your diet comes in. Foods that are high in carbohydrates increase the levels of serotonin. Breads, pasta, cereals and candy are all capable of producing a temporary increase in the serotonin levels...and calming us down.
Some emotional eating is rooted in the technology explosion that started in the late 1980s and continues today. We've become a nation of people who are "always on." Before the 1980s if people wanted to get in touch with you, they could call. If you were privileged enough to have an answering machine they could leave a message. In the late 1980s and early 1990s cell phones and answering services became ubiquitous.
Today we're expected to be available to everybody at a moments notice. Add the rise of email and instant messaging, and hardly a minute goes by when someone can't get in touch with you somehow.
All that access has a price. Being available all the time has increased our levels of anxiety, leading to more emotional eating. As the weight goes on, more emotional eating takes place to handle the negative feelings and the weight spirals up.
To avoid stuffing yourself with food because of the way you feel, make yourself less available. Turn off your cell phone when you need to concentrate or want some uninterrupted time. If you work on a computer, turn off the notification system that pops up every time you get a new email. Designate a couple times during the day when you answer your phone calls and respond to emails. You'll get more done when you're not constantly interrupted and your levels of anxiety will drop naturally, without resorting to emotional eating.
You should also take an honest look at your eating habits. If you're using food on a daily basis to cope with life, you may need the help of a professional to deal with the disorder. Make an appointment with a therapist or look for a local chapter of overeaters anonymous.
Start writing down things that trigger your eating. When you want to grab some comfort food, ask yourself why. Are you bored? Do something to engage your mind. Read a book, play a game or explore a hobby. Are you feeling overlooked? Do something to pamper yourself. Give yourself a facial or manicure. Sit in a hot tub, swim in a pool or just take a relaxing bath.
Don't try to eliminate unhealthy foods overnight. Look for substitutions. If you like ice cream, buy the lower fat and lower calorie single serving options. If chocolate is your thing, look for fat and sugar free puddings.
Practice portion control. Instead of eating the entire meal in one setting, cut the serving size in half. Eat half now and wait 30 minutes. Then if you're still hungry you can eat some more.
Consider that some over-eating may be the result of pills. Inventory your prescriptions, over the counter medications and supplements. Some of them, such as ones used to treat depression or bipolar disorder, are appetite stimulants. If they are, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about alternatives that don't cause cravings.
Before you indulge, exercise. If you want to eat a 200 calorie snack bar, exercise those 200 calories off before you take the first bite. The exercise helps release endorphins which make you feel better, and once you finish your exercise, the cravings may have passed.
Keep a food journal. Write down everything you eat and drink. You don't have to use it to calculate every little thing in the food, it's just to make you more aware of what you eat. Sometimes just the thought of writing down that cheat food will give you the willpower to avoid it.
Finally, if you really are hungry and it's not just emotions, eat well.
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