After an emotional ordeal do you find yourself choosing comfort over nutritious virtue – a side of fries over roasted pumpkin, or cake over a handful of berries? Or do you, without second thought or hesitation, head straight for a bag of chips to relieve yourself of boredom, stress or sadness?
The tendency to resort to food in response to emotional triggers, particularly emotional distress, is identified as emotional eating and there’s no denying many of us have at some point indulged in comfort foods in response to upsets at work or in relationships.
“In our modern world, where food is everywhere, where snacking is encouraged and where advertising overtly promotes emotional eating, we all eat emotionally,” psychologist Louise Adams says.
However, while emotional eating may be an occasional and temporary way of seeking short-term relief, it can become troublesome both psychologically and nutritionally if left to become a habitual way of dealing with emotional turmoil.
A closer look
Emotional eating occurs in the absence of physical hunger and according to psychologists, can be categorised as an ‘avoidance coping’ strategy.
Emotional eaters typically eat food they enjoyed during childhood as well as high-fat or high-sugar snacks, which trigger a serotonin response in the brain, causing the emotional eater to experience pleasure while eating.
Doctoral candidate in psychology at Monash University Emma Gallagher is coordinating a study to help individuals struggling with their weight. She says many emotional eaters want to escape unpleasant emotions such as sadness or stress and instead of dealing with and addressing these emotions, eat to feel better, which seems to work in the short-term.
“But usually not for long – maybe a few minutes – so in the long-term, it isn’t a very helpful strategy and actually tends to compound distress,” Gallagher says.
Why we resort to food for comfort can be attributed to our everyday methods of dealing with problems. When faced with a predicament, we feel inclined to fix the problem or eliminate it, but avoiding it is usually an easy and tempting option.
However, you’re probably familiar with what happens when you avoid a problem you can’t escape, and Gallagher says research shows avoiding internal experiences such as thoughts and emotions does not work and actually acts to increase original distress.
Those of us who eat to avoid a difficult situation or negative emotion feel better temporarily, but then feel worse because not only has the original distress not gone away, but additional distress has been added, usually in the form of guilt.
Discomfort on your plate
If you’re piling your plate with guilty pleasures, you’re also bound to be compromising the nutritious value of your eating patterns – an aspect of emotional eating that is given less attention than its psychological factors.
In emotional eating, comfort is always preferred over nutrition and this can lead to a range of deficiencies. Emotional eaters indulge in too much of one food group, typically fat and sugar-laden foods, which means they don’t have a balanced and varied diet.
Emotional eating can also result in overeating.
“Given emotional eating is related to eating in the absence of physiological hunger, it is most likely that people who engage in emotional eating are eating more than their recommended daily energy intake, which is likely to lead to weight gain and increases in body mass index,” Gallagher says.
Gallagher says despite our occasional reluctance to accept BMI as an indicator of physical health, evidence shows there is an association between higher BMI scores and poorer health outcomes for individuals.
Emotional eaters are also at risk of becoming overweight or obese, which is related to developing or exacerbating health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
“I see lots of clients struggling with their physical health as a result of emotional eating – they have problems such as insulin resistance, diabetes and high blood pressure,” Adams says.
Emotional eating is also one of the biggest triggers for binge eating and even bulimia. Uncontrollable eating habits can also result in reduced self-esteem and body image issues, which again contributes to the cycle of eating to feel better.
Combat the comfort
There are a range of ways to distract yourself from unpleasant emotions using non-food related methods. Go for a walk – this will release serotonin (happy hormones) in the brain, or engage in a soothing activity other than eating – listen to meditative music.
Another strategy to lessen the impact of emotional eating is to limit your portion sizes. Have a small piece of chocolate rather than a whole bar, enjoy it and indulge in it slowly and mindfully.
Gallagher calls this ‘mindful eating’ and says emotional eaters can challenge their eating habits by trying two minutes of mindful eating.
“Get one piece of chocolate and a stop watch and set the time for two minutes,” she says.
Start by looking at the piece of chocolate from different angles and notice what happens after you put it in your mouth and chew it.
What were you thinking and feeling? Was it a long time or short time? Asking yourself these questions can combat mindless, emotional eating and allow us to engage in mindful eating habits. As a result, we eat less than we normally would in the given time frame.
If we go by the saying ‘you are what you eat’, the food we eat can contribute to our mood and wellbeing, which means emotional eaters can select nutritional, feel-good alternatives instead of calorie-packed meals and snacks that elicit bad feelings.
Studies show that sweets and snacks can work to improve mood in the short-term, but do not aid in long-term wellbeing, but there’s research to prove a healthy diet does. A recent study reported in the Medical Journal of Australia found adolescents who ate a healthy, wholefood diet were nearly half as likely to suffer from depression compared with adolescents who ate a nutritionally poor diet with a lot of fast foods and calorie-laden snacks.
According to experts, a diet rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which can stimulate serotonin, can boost mood and in the long run offers a healthy feel-good alternative to typical comfort foods. In her book The Serotonin Secret Dr Caroline Longmore advises us to search for foods high in amino acids, which trigger the body to produce tryptophan and make for feel-better eating.
Tryptophan-rich foods such as bananas, poultry, beef, eggs, cottage cheese, nuts, legumes and brown rice have been shown to boost serotonin and when combined with a wholesome diet and regular exercise, can stave off depression.
Omega-3 has also been found to reduce the likelihood of depression. Oily fish are a rich source of omega-3 and also contain B group vitamins, which can optimise brain health to make you feel balanced in mood and emotion.
But remember, don’t over-indulge – eat these nutritious alternatives mindfully!