Magazine Login
Diet & Nutrition
Emotional Eating
May 2019
Dr Lakshmi

Emotional Eating​

Humans have been eating out of emotions for as long as we can remember. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. There’s a science behind emotional eating and comfort food – the factors that cause cravings and the ways that giving in to those cravings affects us.

Eating Can Be A Convenient Distraction From Emotions
Stress and boredom as two main drivers of emotional eating. And that’s because eating is a task. Eating gives us something to do. It fills our time, gives us a way to procrastinate. We often use eating to mark time — lunch, for instance, can provide a break in a dragging work day. So we come to associate eating with relief or even excitement and it’s only natural that we’d reach for those same feelings when we’re worried or sad. Events don’t have a meaning; we give them a meaning.


The meaning of eating is:


• ‘I’m going to be happy.
• I’m not going to be in emotional discomfort.
• I’ll have this wonderful experience.
This connection is also relevant when it comes to another kind of emotional eating: ‘Happy Eating.’ Think about how you celebrate big achievements, special occasions, or picnics. We treat ourselves to our favourite foods to define a moment of pride or joy and we link activities like going to a movie with indulging in a tub of popcorn.

Familiar Discomfort Of Food Over Unfamiliar Discomfort Of Feelings
There’s conscious and unconscious emotional discomfort. Sometimes we know what we’re feeling and sometimes we don’t. We just feel uneasy or not happy and we don’t deal with that.

Instead, we just eat. Then we get what we know we’ll have: shame, remorse, regret.

We trade in the first discomfort, which is maybe unfamiliar and something we’re more frightened of, for the familiar feelings that come after emotional eating. Comfort foods don’t tend to be healthy. We want cake, pasta or chips when we’re emotionally eating.

The reason for this is that we have emotional memories around certain foods. Plus, our culture categorizes certain foods as treats or guilty pleasures and that’s what we want to soothe or reward ourselves with.

Furthermore, something like a candy bar gives your blood sugar a surge, which makes you feel better in the moment. But after we eat for emotional reasons, we may not feel too great about it. There are two reasons for this.

• Because we know we’ve overeaten or consumed unhealthy foods.

• Because we’re celebrating a hard-earned promotion with a red velvet cupcake and we’re actually fine.

Either way, we’re replacing our original feelings with the emotions that arise out of eating, from shame to satisfaction.

Comfort Food And Positive Memories

Comfort foods are food items that are closely linked in our minds to our emotional partners. Think about all the happy and comforting memories you have involving food. Maybe your family used to celebrate occasions with a trip to the ice cream shop, or maybe your mom or dad used to soften your bad day with a bowl of Maggi. When you’re feeling rejected or anxious today, eating one of those foods is an instant connection to that soothing time.

Experts’ Advice On Controlling Emotional Eating

Emotional eating can be OK in moderation. But when this behavior becomes a habit, that can harm you both physically and emotionally — physically, because of the regular consumption (and perhaps overconsumption) of foods that aren’t so healthy and emotionally, because, eating to avoid facing feelings is like putting a “Bandaid on a broken arm.” So how do we separate our emotions from eating? Remember that food’s purpose is to nourish us. A misleading misnomer, if there ever was one, comfort is not something we want to keep associating with food. We want to file food in our brains undernourishment and occasional pleasure.

Instead, we tend to seek comfort through friends, doing kind things for ourselves and engaging in healthy activities that reduce internal distress.

We should ask ourselves if we’re actually hungry for food or if we need some other action to treat what we’re feeling. Journaling of what you’re eating when and taping that note to the fridge, to recognize a pattern of what you’re eating, when and why.

Flow chart:

• Am I hungry – yes or no?

• What do I want to eat?

• Am I not hungry?

• What am I feeling?

If you’re grieving, think of constructive ways to sit with that grief. If you’re angry or hurt by someone go talk to that person.

Mindful Eating

Eating should be its own activity.

Instead of mood-driven consumption, we should be solving our emotional needs on their own and concentrating on our meals on their own. When we eat, the goal is to sit down and really experience that meal and its flavours and be aware of when we’re full.

One important thing to remember if you’re trying to curb emotional eating habits is, not to go cold turkey: Don’t give up on every single food habit at once, don’t beat yourself up about the times you do eat your feelings and do think about other forms of comfort and reward. The risk of being too hard on ourselves is that it only increases feelings of stress, longing, shame and guilt, all of which can just lead to a vicious cycle. We can enjoy our cookies every now and then, but we should try to eat them for the pleasure of eating a cookie and not as a form of self-therapy