By Georgina Yates & Sue Firth 

At some point in all of our lives we turn to a solution we hope will make us feel better; to cope with or to distract us temporarily from our problems.  Everyone has a vice which we use as a coping mechanism; some method of enabling us to feel a little bit better even if it’s only for a moment.  Some people smoke, others drink, some take drugs, some exercise, and many of us eat.

Emotional eating is when an individual uses food to soothe their mood; possibly overeating and for some, binge eating – consuming huge quantities of food – usually ‘comfort’ or ‘junk’ foods – in response to certain feelings other than hunger. It is estimated that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions – but it’s not what you are eating, it’s what is eating you!

Whether it’s a child buying sweets after a long day at school, or a senior business figure treating themselves to a desert for getting through another stressful day at the office many people reward themselves on a daily basis with some sort of sweet or fat filled trophy.  This type of food reward gives individuals something to look forward to and enjoy at the end of a day, temporarily helping us to forget our stress and worries.

Extensive research into binge eating and food addiction has proven that eating foods rich in carbohydrate, sugars and fats releases Dopamine, an opioid type substance in our brains.  Opioids are the active ingredients in heroin and many other highly addictive prescription drugs.  In the case of eating, the enjoyment of the substance is initially triggered when we taste sugar and this releases the calming, soothing, if not slightly euphoric effects we feel when we eat these type of foods. This creates some difficulty for us though; firstly, dopamine is producing the same good-time feelings experienced when a person uses drugs so there is a risk of becoming quite addicted to food and yet the second issue is we have not resolved our feelings, acted to reduce the problem or in reality made any changes to the situation at all. We’ve merely ‘wired’ ourselves towards a pain relieving solution that doesn’t work in the long run. Moreover, the damage high levels of sugar can do to our bodies is now well documented let alone the difficulties young children begin to experience in learning this quick-fix solution rather than a better management of their feelings.

 So what triggers us to binge?

 By identifying what triggers our over-eating we may be able to find appropriate techniques that can be substituted to manage the emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation.  But what exactly causes us to go from eating normally to over-eating, to bingeing: –

  1. Social – eating when around other people, for example, excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat or eating to fit in.
  2. Emotional – eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness or any other emotional trigger. This is classified as Stress
  3. Situational – eating because the opportunity is there, for example, walking past a bakery. It may also be associated with certain activities such as watching TV or going to the cinema.
  4. Thoughts – eating as a result of negative self-worth
  5. Physiological – eating in response to physical cues, for example, increased hunger due to missing meals.

The most common trigger causing individuals to over eat is our emotional state.   Humans don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We are more complicated than that. Using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or a celebration doesn’t represent a problem. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism, when your first response to stress, anger or other emotional triggers, is to open the fridge, then you may have a problem and it could benefit from being addressed or you become stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real issue – how you’re feeling emotionally, is never actually addressed.

As most alcoholics and drug addicts are frequently unable to disentangle themselves from substances without help, many people that are emotionally or binge eating also require additional medical assistance and support to withdraw from their ‘drug of choice’.  Over eating becomes a habit, a vicious cycle, preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve the problems that are causing the emotional distress in the first place.

 So what’s really going on?

 Have you ever noticed how stress makes you feel hungry? Well, it’s not just in your mind.  Chronic stress leads to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.  Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods – foods that give you a burst of energy and short lived pleasure.  Along with this biologically based reasoning for why we turn to food to deal with stress is another much simpler theory, childhood association of food with comfort.  When a baby cries what do we offer?  A bottle or breast.  When a small child falls over and is inconsolable what do we offer?  A biscuit or some other favourite food.  Throughout our younger years and well in to adulthood, food will have likely been used as a temporary distraction from some form of emotional distress.  So the more we experience stress, the more likely we are to turn to food for emotional relief.

How do you start to deal with the problem?

 Overcoming emotional eating isn’t as easy as just simply deciding not to do it, although that’s a great start! It isn’t just about dieting and healthy eating.  In order to really start dealing with the problem of over eating you have to commit to dealing with your feelings which are causing the problem in the first place, and not using food to numb, comfort or distract you from them.  If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, it can be difficult to control your eating habits for a sustained period.

Below are a few ways that may help you: –

  1. Keep a food journal – Write down when you eat, what you eat and how you felt at the time. Tracking your emotions and your eating will help you determine what types of feelings tend to drive you into the fridge – and what foods you’re likely to eat as a result.
  2. Think before you eat – Before you take a bite think about whether you are actually really hungry. Does your stomach feel empty? Do you feel light-headed? Are you experiencing hunger sensations or are you turning to food because you’re stressed or depressed? Try drinking a big glass of water before you eat – thirst often masquerades as hunger.
  3. Focus on the food – Pay attention to the types of food you’re craving – this will often alert you as to whether you’re emotionally rather than physically hungry. If after an argument with someone, you suddenly have a craving for a hot fudge sundae, it’s probably not because you’re actually hungry but rather you need some form of comfort. If you’re aware of why you’re craving certain foods it can help you to avoid eating them and instead to look at working through the emotional trigger causing the craving.
  4. Exercise – When you eat as a reaction to emotional triggers you get a sense of disconnect with yourself. Exercising regularly can help you reconnect with your physical self. It has been well researched that exercise reduces stress, depression and anxiety, common emotional eating triggers. In fact, people who exercise regularly experience fewer food cravings than non-exercisers.  When you feel more comfortable in your own skin and more confident about your physical self, you’re also less likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism.
  5. Offload – Just talking to someone about how you feel can be helpful. Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.  Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things clearly, leading to other emotional issues such as depression, and from here problems such as emotional eating are manifested.  Talking things through with a friend, work colleague, or a trained professional, can help you find solutions to your stress and put your problems into perspective preventing other habits from establishing.

Some last thoughts: –

 In order to stop emotional over eating, you must find other ways to satisfy yourself emotionally.

Although it can be difficult to open up to others about your life and problems, talking things through and problem solving can actively help with decreasing stress and removing the negative methods in which we deal with it.

Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage and take control of your stress instead of allowing it to control you but if you still continue to feel overwhelmed talking to a psychologist is another highly recommended way to help break the cycle and kick the habit to the curb!

Good luck and let me know how you get on