Have you ever reached for a bar of chocolate when you are having a stressful day at work? Or perhaps you have found yourself at the end of a large bag of crisps while cramming for a big exam?
If this sounds familiar, then chances are you have experienced emotional eating. Whether you have found yourself eating out of boredom, habit or emotion – you are not alone. Most of us have been there.
However, when emotional eating becomes a frequent behaviour, it can lead to significant issues such as weight gain, blood sugar imbalances and poor nutrition. If you find that you regularly lean on food as a means to soothe and/or avoid uncomfortable emotions, then this can have further implications for your psychological and social wellbeing over time.
Emotionally-led eating is a complex issue driven by multiple factors from culture and environment, to behaviour, biochemistry and physiology. The more developed your emotionally-led eating patterns are, the more you may be required to address this broad array of factors.
For the purpose of this blog, we will be looking at the small way in which nutrition can have a powerful influence over the desire to eat from emotion.
What is emotional eating?
Often referred to as ‘comfort eating’, emotional eating is the practice of eating for reasons other than hunger or nutrition. Perhaps you find yourself eating because you are sad, stressed or lonely; or maybe you use food as a reward. Food is wonderful at comforting us for many reasons; it can feel immensely soothing, but even more, it can distract from what is really bothering you.
It is a common belief that emotional eating is triggered by negative feelings, however it can also be driven by positive feelings i.e. celebration of a birthday or holiday.1 Circumstance can also trigger emotional eating, such as going through a divorce or bereavement. More often, however, emotional eating is simply a distraction from all the daily stresses one may encounter.
Emotional eating patterns are learned. For example, a child who is rewarded with ice-cream for doing well on a test, may grow up using ice-cream as a reward for doing a good job. Similarly, a child who was given a chocolate bar as a means to stop crying, may tie feelings of comfort with chocolate.
Over time, emotionally-led eating can inhibit your ability to listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals, which can cause you to eat more than you may need or even want. It can further interfere with your ability to make conscious and healthy food choices, which may lead to weight gain, blood sugar imbalances and poor nutrition.2
What are the signs of emotional eating?
Eating from a place of emotion rather than hunger now and again is a common occurrence; which the body can usually bounce back from without experiencing long-term issues. However, if you find that you often reach for food when bored, stressed or depressed; you may be emotional eating.
Common signs of emotionally-led eating:
- Your eating habits change in accordance with the amount of stress in your life
- You eat when you are not hungry or when you are full
- You reward yourself with food
- You eat to soothe burdensome feelings
- You often eat to avoid or distract from stressful or challenging situations
Eating for emotion versus eating for pleasure
This is an important distinction. It is not uncommon for individuals to associate pleasure with comfort food. However, eating for emotion and eating for pleasure are not the same thing. When you are eating from a place of emotion, you are doing so as a means to conceal and often avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings; which can contribute to unwanted complications such as compulsive and/or overeating. On the contrary, seeking pleasure through food can marry very nicely with the fundamental purpose of food – satiation and nourishment. To choose food which delights the senses actually serves to aid the digestive processes by stimulating gastric juices; as well as increasing satisfaction and thus mitigating the temptation to overeat from a place of lack.
Dealing with emotional eating – how can nutrition help?
It is important to understand that emotional eating is much less about the emotion, rather the chemistry behind that emotion which is causing you to seek comfort in food. When we are stressed and cortisol is high, we tend to gravitate towards sweet and/or fatty food combinations. Insufficient sleep can also lead to carbohydrate cravings as appetite is increased, while satiety is reduced.3
As such, by working with the underlying imbalances which lead to emotionally driven food cravings, you can maintain peace and satisfaction, without attempting to rely on willpower alone.
This is where nutrition comes in…
- When you are feeling sad and/or insatiable
Behind the craving: feeling sad often leads to one of two things: zero appetite or an insatiable desire to numb ourselves with food; allowing us to conceal uncomfortable emotions. While the former is a quite natural reaction to melancholy, the latter appears to do with lower levels of serotonin. As the most efficient way to boost serotonin, it is no surprise that we often crave sugar and carbohydrates when feeling low.
The sugar-serotonin connection
Serotonin is made from tryptophan – a dietary amino acid. While tryptophan is found in a variety of protein-based foods, it is often the least abundant amino acid and so has a tendency to lose out when competing with other amino acids for transport to the brain. This is where carbohydrates come in. When carbohydrates are consumed, insulin levels rise, causing amino acids to be taken out of the blood and transported to the muscle. However, unlike some other amino acids, tryptophan is mostly bound by the protein albumin, which is immune to insulin signalling. Thus carbohydrate intake results in (relatively) higher tryptophan levels in the blood, giving it priority for transport to the brain. Once it gets to the brain, it can then be converted into 5-HTP, which is converted into serotonin – allowing us to feel good, relaxed, full and sleepy – as per the role of serotonin in the body. Vitamin B6 and magnesium are needed as cofactors for the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin.
What to do instead: research suggests that consuming large quantities of sugar and refined carbohydrates can max out our serotonin machinery overtime;4 leading to further carbohydrate cravings and depressed feelings. For those experiencing frequent bouts of emotional eating, a low carbohydrate diet is also not the answer, as such restrictions could lead to binge eating behaviour. Instead, choosing wholefood sources of carbohydrates such as starchy vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes in place of processed and refined versions is best. Supplements containing 5-HTP, the precursor to serotonin, are available which people may use for a period of time while working on making better food choices. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that you have plenty of magnesium and B6 to help with the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin.
NB: 5-HTP, if taken as a supplement, is best taken at bedtime as it can cause sleepiness (however, 5-HTP should not be taken if taking anti-depressant medication).
- After a bad night’s sleep or if you are hungover
Behind the craving: the morning after the night before is prime emotional eating time. This is because less sleep can lead to increases in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) which can lead to increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings; while dehydration can leave you feeling tired and not much in the mood to cook up a balanced breakfast.
What to do instead: start with hydration. Rehydrate with plenty of water or perhaps try coconut water and/or a green juice to boost potassium and other hydrating nutrients such as sodium and magnesium. Alcohol increases requirements for B vitamins which are involved in the clearance of acetaldehyde – a toxic metabolite from alcohol. Make sure that you fill up on a protein-rich meal, with plenty of greens and healthy fats to satisfy and recover the body from any alcohol-induced blood sugar imbalances. Additionally, as alcohol is an acute magnesium diuretic5 and low magnesium levels have been associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression,6 it is important to ensure adequate levels, especially if alcohol consumption is frequent.
- When you are feeling PMS
Behind the craving: Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is no joke – it can quickly bring on feelings of stress, sadness and irritability; often leaving us with our hand in the biscuit tin – the chocolate-covered biscuit tin! Symptoms of PMS are closely linked to changing levels of oestrogen, serotonin and progesterone. As oestrogen drops during the second part of your cycle, serotonin can drop also. Those who may be experiencing low levels of progesterone and/or a low progesterone to oestrogen ratio can increase the severity of symptoms experienced. Increased carb-cravings may also be noticed during menopause and may contribute to increased weight gain at that time.7
What to do instead: start by curbing sugar-cravings with less sweet starchy vegetables rather than cutting carbohydrates entirely. This will help to satisfy without triggering blood sugar imbalances. Supporting your liver by increasing your intake of dark green leafy vegetables can further help to balance oestrogen levels in the body. As well as this, ensuring plenty of vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium is vital to keep PMS at bay, as they play a role in hormone balancing and regulation.8
- When you are feeling lonely
Behind the craving: isolation and/or feeling disconnected with others.
What to do instead: reach out. Realise that loneliness is a prevalent issue and you are not alone in how you are feeling. There is no nutritional solution for loneliness – nourishing your soul is key to resolve this issue. Take some time to figure out ways in which you might start to reach out. Could you join a class? Have you always wanted to learn Salsa or become a Yogi? Sharing a common interest is a great way to connect with new people. If this feels like too much, maybe you could join an online group; or perhaps commit to saying ‘hello’ to one new person everyday and getting yourself comfortable with the art of small talk. You may find that as you reach out and begin to feel more connected, your need to comfort through food will wane, as your needs and desires become met in other ways. You can find local groups covering many interests and activities on the website www.meet-up.com.
Oxytocin is a hormone, sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. Examples of situations that trigger the release of this hormone include: social connection, love, orgasm, laughing, listening to soothing music and playing with your dog. Almost as good as hugging someone is imagining yourself being hugged or cuddled by someone or hugging yourself. Higher levels of oxytocin are associated with reduced appetite.9
Emotional eating can be a complex issue, with several behavioural components. If you are seriously struggling with this form of eating, then it may be time to seek professional support. There are an array of tools that can be used to support the awareness and reversal of unhelpful habits developed through emotionally-led eating: from identifying triggers to keeping a food journal and even appetite retraining; there are resources that can help.
- Often referred to as ‘comfort eating’, emotional eating is the practice of eating for reasons other than hunger or nutrition.
- It is a common belief that emotional eating is triggered by negative feelings, however it can also be driven by positive feelings i.e. celebration of a birthday or holiday. More often, however, it is simply a distraction from the many daily stresses one may encounter.
- Emotional eating is less about the emotion, but the chemistry behind that emotion which is causing you to seek comfort in food. When we are stressed and cortisol is high, we tend to gravitate towards sweet and/or fatty food combinations. Other factors which can lead to emotional eating include insufficient sleep, low mood, hormonal imbalance and high alcohol consumption.
- Reducing consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, as well as increasing magnesium and B6 can be helpful in supporting a more balanced mood. 5-HTP, the precursor to serotonin (sometimes called ‘the happy hormone’), is available in supplement form (NB – it should not be taken if you are taking antidepressant medication).
- Alcohol can increase appetite by a number of mechanisms and also increases the need for B vitamins to support the clearance of acetaldehyde – a toxic metabolite from alcohol.
- If hormonal imbalances are leading to emotional eating, support your liver with plenty of dark green leafy vegetables, while also ensuring optimal levels of vitamin B6, magnesium and zinc for hormonal regulation.
- If loneliness is a factor in your emotional eating, consider reaching out and joining a club or activity you enjoy www.meetup.com.
- Bongers, P. and Jansen, A. (2016) ‘Emotional eating is not what you think it is and emotional eating scales do not measure what you think they measure’. Front Psychol, 7: 1932.
- Ely, A.V et al. (2013) ‘The generation and inhibition of hedonically-driven food intake: behavioural and neurophysiological determinants in healthy weight individuals’. Physiol Behav, 10, 121, 25-34.
- Bayon, V. et al. (2014) ‘Sleep debt and obesity’, Ann Med, 46, 5, pp.264-72.
- Wurtman, J. and Wurtman R. ‘The trajectory from mood to obesity’. Curr Obes Rep., 7(1): 1–5.
- Romani, A.M. (2008) ‘Magnesium homeostasis and alcohol consumption. Magnes Res, 21(4):197-204.
- Mlyniec, K. (2014) ‘ Essential elements in depression and anxiety. Part 1. Pharmacol Rep., 66, 4, pp.534-44.
- Tabrizian, T. (2004) ‘Visual textbook of nutritional medicine’. NRS Publications Education Series.
- Chopra, S. et al. (2019) ‘Weight management module for perimenopausal women: a practical guide for gynaecologists. J Midlife Health, 10, 4, pp.165-172.
- Plessow, F. et al. (2018) ‘The Neuropeptide hormone oxytocin in eating disorders’, Curr Psychiatry Rep., 4, 20, 10, 91.
If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Clare) by phone or email at any time.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01684 310099
Clare Daley and the Cytoplan Editorial Team
Last updated on 3rd March 2021 by cytoffice