By Rosemary Ann Ogilvie
Many of us find we’re almost compelled to reach for food the moment we’re stressed, angry, worried, emotional, or fearful. And sadly, it’s not healthy green salads we crave! Instead, it’s the carb-, fat-, and kilojoule-laden comfort foods. While the patterns for emotional eating are deeply ingrained as they’re often formed in early childhood, they can be overcome, and this article explores strategies to help you change.
Q: Whenever I’m upset or stressed I simply have to eat, and it’s always the most fattening comfort foods. It’s really playing havoc with my weight now, I’ve stacked on kilos. What can I do to overcome this need to eat when things go wrong?
A: As babies, we quickly discovered that the breast or bottle produces the delicious comfort of a full belly. As toddlers, whenever we fell and scraped our knees, our parents helped chase away the pain and tears with soothing words and cuddles – and often a food treat for good measure. Through childhood and adolescence, we learned that food is an integral component of life’s celebrations, whether birthdays, Christmas, Easter, anniversaries, or education milestones. Hardly surprising that food becomes inextricably linked in our minds with comfort and happiness. So, when we split with a partner, are sacked from a job, miss out on getting a longed-for job, or are simply stressed to the limit after a day from hell, we reach for food to help soothe the pain. And of course, in these situations only some high-carbohydrate, high-sugar confection will do – and for a valid physiological reason. These classic comfort foods pump up production of the brain chemical serotonin, creating a tranquillising effect in a similar way to prescription tranquillisers. They also cause blood sugar and insulin levels to shoot up, which exacerbate the cravings.
Stress, bereavement, boredom, worry, unhappiness, frustration, anger, worry or anxiety about a major event, feelings of hopelessness, believing you are not appreciated, are some of the most common triggers for emotional eating, the term used for eating in response to feelings rather than hunger.
Unfortunately, comforting as food may be, it doesn’t magic away the underlying problem. When the flavour of that last bite of cronut disappears from your mouth, you’ll still be angry, stressed, bored or pressured – and you’ll carry the additional burden of guilt, regret or frustration from eating kilojoule-laden food you did not really need.
Delay the moment
The good news is you can learn to control emotional eating.
The first step is to pay attention to what you’re doing: chances are when you open the refrigerator door seeking comfort, only half your mind is focussed on your actions. Stop for a second before taking that first bite – you can even put a STOP! or THINK! sign on the refrigerator door to prompt you. Ask yourself whether this food is really the best thing for you at this precise moment. Are you eating to satisfy hunger pangs? Or to fulfil an emotional need?
Put the food aside for 30 minutes – or 10 or five if 30 seems like a lifetime sentence. Promise yourself that you can eat it then if you’re still hungry. Drink a glass of mineral water to take the edge off your hunger. When the time is up, if you are indeed still hungry, eat something: by now, you may be happy to settle for something less damaging. Capitalise on the carbohydrate-serotonin connection by choosing a more nutritious, lower-kilojoule variety of high-carbohydrate foods that will tranquillise without causing additional cravings: fruit; an open salad (no protein) sandwich on wholegrain bread; or even a mini muffin. Whatever you choose, eat it mindfully, savouring every mouthful: taste, don’t waste.
During the waiting period, get involved in an activity that engages your mind. Ideally, start thinking about an effective way of dealing with the underlying problem. If anger, for example, is sending you in search of food, analyse who or what is making you angry. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss the situation with the source of the anger instead of holding it in? If this isn’t possible, write a letter to the person pouring out everything you’d like to say to their face, then email or text it to yourself or – preferably – delete it.
Another way to deal with emotional eating is to keep a food diary. Record what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Write about the highs and lows of each day, your feelings about these events, and your reactions to them, such as craving certain foods or even bingeing. Over time, patterns may emerge that reveal the connection between mood and food. For example, boredom may always initiate overwhelming cravings for sweets, while stress may cause you to binge on chocolate. Be sure to monitor your sleeping patterns in your diary. The hormone ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, is created after several hours of fasting. Another hormone, leptin, is produced when we eat, and is responsible for creating feelings of satiety that shut down our hunger centre and in turn force ghrelin levels to drop. People who sleep for fewer than five hours appear to have higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin compared to those who have eight hours’ sleep; they also experience greater cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. And there’s some more bad news: lack of sleep leads to leptin resistance, which impacts the body’s ability to burn fat effectively, resulting in weight gain.
Once you’ve identified your emotional triggers, hold a personal brainstorming session to find alternative behaviours to eating: walk the dog; bounce on the rebounder for ten minutes; take a quick bike ride; do some stretching or yoga; call a positive friend for a chat; weed the garden; play with your kids; take a break from a boring project at work and do one of your favourite tasks. Write these ideas on sticky notes and position them where you can’t miss seeing them in your moment of temptation.
Consider removing all temptation if you find it difficult to resist comfort foods. If you don’t have a supply of them, you can’t eat them. And on this note, avoid doing your food shopping when your emotions are stirred up as you’re tempted to toss all the wrong things in the trolley: postpone it until you’re back in balance.
Fuel your body
Keep in mind that cravings for all the wrong foods are much less likely to occur when you fuel your body properly with nutrient-dense foods. So, ensure you don’t skip meals, and eat a diet loaded with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds to obtain a broad range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Additionally, supplementing with alpha lipoic acid may help overcome overwhelming sugar cravings, so speak to your natural therapist.
Finally, some two-thirds of overweight people report that they turn to food in stressful situations. Learning stress-management techniques is vital for maintaining good health as well as for weight control and curbing emotional eating.