There’s no denying that food makes us feel good. There’s something about that tub of Häagen-Dazs after your first major breakup or devouring that entire bag of chips while you’re up late cramming for an exam that is immensely satisfying. When we eat large amounts of food — especially “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings as opposed to hunger, it’s called emotional eating. And while it may seem harmless, emotional eating is actually a form of disordered eating that can send your weight spiraling out of control before you know it.
The link between food and emotions has been well documented. Carbs can cause actual changes in your brain chemistry, boosting a chemical in the brain called serotonin. The higher the levels of serotonin, the more content you feel (at least temporarily). Overeating can also be related to chronic stress, which creates elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, tricking your body into thinking you’re going through a famine and increasing food cravings. And according to a recent study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, consumption of foods high in sugar and fat releases dopamine, the chemical that stimulates the brain’s pleasure center and makes us feel euphoric. That chocolate is actually working like a drug in your body, numbing feelings of stress or sadness, and giving you a temporary high… with a much less temporary muffin top!
If you are unsure about whether or not you are emotionally eating, look to these four tell-tale signs:
• You eat when you are not physically hungry.
• It is hard to find food that satisfies you.
• Cravings are triggered by an emotion such as anger, anxiety, or boredom, etc.
• Comfort eating has a mindless component to it. You may not enjoy or taste the food because you are eating it mechanically, as if in a trance.
While emotional eating can feel great at the height of a stressful situation, making it a habit can have a negative impact on your life, as well as sabotaging your weight loss goals. But like any other lifestyle change, emotional eating can be controlled through awareness and the consistent practice of new behaviors, with some helpful tips like these:
1. To deal with food cravings that result from negative emotions, check out our 5 Tips to Control Your Worst Food Cravings.
2. Use your non-dominant hand to eat. A 2011 study by researchers from the University of Southern California found that this practical strategy can reduce the amount that you eat. This action breaks up the automatic hand-to-mouth flow and encourages you to think about each bite.
3. Develop an awareness of your emotions and what feelings give you the urge to eat. Start a journal and write it down so you can start to figure out what your triggers are.
4. Replace food with a more positive coping mechanism. Once you’ve identified what feelings make you want to eat, replace the urge to eat with a different activity — it can be something fun, physical, or even creative. Make it something you enjoy doing that can serve as a pick-me-up on a tough day that doesn’t add calories.
Take control of your weight by taking control of your emotions. With a little bit of practice, you can put a stop to emotional eating… and you’ll be happy you did!