More than one-third of adults and seventeen percent of youth in the United States are obese. Almost two out of three adults are considered overweight or obese. Health risks associated with overweight and obesity include high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, cancer, anxiety, and depression, among others. We will explore Emotional Eating and ways to prevent it and the end result of obesity.
Studies show that seventy-five percent of overeating is emotional. The most popular New Year’s resolution continues to be weight loss. However, many fail this before the end of February. Most people rely on restrictive diets (which can only be temporary) and intense workouts (which can lead to injury) instead of getting to the core issue of overeating, which often times is based on emotions, and not actual physical hunger. Emotions interplay with fat cell secreting hormones such as Leptin that can cause overeating. Until we can process why we eat based on emotions and not hunger, the statistics on an overweight culture will continue to rise and lead to frustration and discouragement for those on diets. According to Grodstein and co-investigators (1996) and Neumark-Sztainer, et al. (2007), “95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.”
From a very early age, many of us have been comforted by food. Whether it is being rewarded with a lollipop after a doctor visit, or going to get ice cream after winning a game, or even getting a bottle when we cried as an infant when we weren’t necessarily hungry, the reward is food. But maybe we are just uncomfortable, tired, stressed, or bored. We can easily make a connection with food and comfort.
Emotional eating, defined, is eating in response to your emotions, not the physiological process of being hungry. So, our emotions dictate when we eat, how much we eat, and even what types of foods we eat.
Do you craves specific food when you’re upset, like chocolate? Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues like seeing food advertised on TV? Do you eat out of boredom? Do you often feel ashamed or guilty after eating?
Emotional hunger is sudden, unlike of gradual urge to eat we feel with physical hunger. Emotional hunger requires specific foods, whereas physical hunger is open to a variety of options. Emotional hunger needs instant satisfaction, while physical hunger can wait. Keep in mind that 75% of hunger pangs are thirst, so drinking a full glass of water can help determine if you are thirsty or hungry. Disorders such as diabetes often perpetuate hunger and eating. One of the triad of signs and symptoms of diabetes is polydipsia (always hungry and eating). The other two are always drinking and increased urination.
Certain foods, especially carbohydrates that are high in sugar, and fat, increase out neurotransmitters or ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brain like serotonin or dopamine. According to Dr. Louis Aronne, founder and director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, “The areas of the brain that get activated or suppressed as a result of emotion and mood were impacted by fatty acid emulsion.” We describe these foods as ‘comfort foods’. So, when we are stressed, tired, bored, or sad we tend to crave these calorie-dense foods instead of lower calorie foods like celery or carrots. Unlike eating because we are physically hungry, when we emotionally eat, we also tend to crave a specific type of food, like chocolate, or something crunchy or smooth.
An effective tool to help determine if someone is emotionally eating is journaling. We recommend journaling the food and drinks you consume, when you consume them, as well as your mood at the time. When you journal, you can also rank your hunger from 1-10, and see the types and amount of food you’re eating. You can more easily see a pattern developing when you write down what happened that day to create the need to eat out of emotions. For example, if you just got in an argument with your spouse and you find yourself going right to the pantry to find cookies, the argument was likely the trigger for eating something specific and calorie-dense. Comfort foods are often associated with negative moods. When you recognize the triggers, you can then manage emotional eating by distracting yourself. Examples of good distractions include: positive self-talk, taking a walk, calling a friend, or cleaning a room. The new behaviors you choose to use, when practiced on a regular basis, can provide a healthier outlet to replace emotional eating, and in some cases cause you to burn calories and lose weight. Cravings tend to last only a few minutes, so adding something during those challenging times can distract yourself from eating when you are not hungry.
Cindy Goulding, MSW is a licensed counselor, personal trainer and expert in the field of emotional eating, she has written a book on the subject and lectures and gives seminars across the Nation.
JP Saleeby, MD is a holistic and functional medical expert with practices in North and South Carolina. His approach to weight management is strictly functional, non-drug therapy nor yo-yo diet plans.