Christine Hatchard, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Your Wellness Room Expert.
When you think of the phrase “comfort food,” what comes to mind? Macaroni and cheese? Your mother’s kitchen? The food you reach for when you’re feeling sad or anxious? If you struggle with emotional eating, you are not alone. A poll of over 1,300 licensed psychologists identified emotions related to weight and emotional eating as the main challenges affecting a client’s ability to lose weight.
Problems making proper food choices ranked significantly lower, suggesting that barriers to weight loss are often psychological in nature (American Psychological Association, 2013).
The relationship between food and emotions begins when we’re born. Babies are soothed and bond with their parents through feeding. Food is literally comforting!
As we grow older, we ideally learn new ways to comfort and care for ourselves through the development of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to identify, understand, regulate and respond to our emotions. Individuals with disordered eating tend to have lower levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness (Costarelli, Demerzi, & Stamou, 2009). When we have unmanageable negative emotions, eating can actually reduce the physiological arousal related to these emotions (Izydorczyk, 2012). However, using food to “stuff away” overwhelming or unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, stress or loneliness, interrupts the process of identifying your emotions and prevents you from truly caring for yourself.
Because food is part of our everyday lives, we also begin to associate food with other emotional and social experiences. We reward ourselves with a special meal for a job well done. We celebrate, identify and even grieve with friends and family through food. Incorporating food into our lives in these ways can be healthy and enjoyable. However, it can become a problem when the food or external reward, becomes more satisfying than the accomplishment and the related internal feelings of self-esteem or self-worth. It becomes a problem when food becomes a necessarypart of meaningful social experiences. It becomes a problem when we overindulge and feel a loss of control that may be difficult to regain.
Why do we experience such a loss of control? When we’re stressed or sad, we tend to reach for particularly unhealthy food, such as such as those that are sugary and high in fat. These types of foods release hormones in the pleasure receptors of our brains. These “happy hormones” may temporarily calm distressing emotions, however, our bodies remember this temporary high and make it more likely that we will reach for the same food again (Epstein, Temple, Neaderhiser, Salis, Erbe, & Leddy, 2007).
Individuals with anxiety or depressive disorders may also experience problems with overeating (Masheb & Grilo, 2006) and obesity may influence the development of these mental disorders (Brumpton, Langhammer, Romundstad, Chen, & Mai, 2013). In one study which examined the relationship between depression and obesity, the researchers found a 43% increase in rates of obesity among women with depression as compared to women who were within a normal weight range (Chen, Jiang, & Mao, 2009). This finding is not surprising as both obesity and depression can have components of unhealthy emotional coping with food. A significant change in appetite or weight is also a symptom noted when diagnosing clinical depression (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
The good news is that there are solutions to emotional eating. Here are some successful strategies to consider:
- Eat Slowly. Your brain needs about 20 minutes to register the chemicals that let you know that you’re full. When you chronically overeat, you begin to ignore your feelings of fullness. Eating slowly while being mindful of your physical feelings of fullness are important parts of healthy eating. Try to eat at the dinner table without distractions such as the television.
- Enjoy your meals. Focus on the unique flavors and textures of the food that you are currently eating. Develop an appreciation for ingredients. Engage in good conversation with your friends and family. Allow yourself to have a special treat like dessert with moderation and savor the one cookie as opposed to wishing you could have 2 more.
- Focus on the feelings. We often make statements such as “I feel fat” or “I feel like eating a box of donuts.” These are not actually feelings. These statements indicate that there are underlying emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear, stress, boredom, loneliness, anger, etc. that have not been properly identified. If you can identify the underlying emotion, you can focus on what you truly need. Every emotion has a purpose. Don’t confuse emotional deprivation for physical deprivation.
- Diversify your rewards. Although celebrating with a special meal c an be a positive experience, consider other ways that you can reward yourself, such as a movie, a casual physical activity like bowling, attending a fun festival in your town or purchasing a new item of clothing. The most powerful rewards for any accomplishment are verbal praise and pride in oneself as they are directly related to self-esteem and long-term positive feelings.
- Be mindful and plan ahead. The worst food decisions are those that happen without thinking as reactions to emotions, events in our lives or allowing too much time to pass between meals. When making healthy changes to your diet, it’s especially important to plan ahead for success. Keep your pantry stocked with good food choices to cover meals and snacks, to supply your body with the energy it needs.
- Don't be too hard on yourself. We all have “off days.” Don't punish yourself for your food choices. Punishing yourself leads to more emotional eating instead of developing healthier coping mechanisms.
- Seek professional advice. Mental health professionals can help you formulate a personalized plan for addressing the distressing feelings that lead you to emotional eating. They can also treat any underlying disorders, such as depression or anxiety which can make it difficult for you to overcome emotional eating on your own.
Dr. Christine Hatchard is a licensed clinical psychologist, forensic evaluator and Director of Mosaic Psychological Associates, LLC in Long Branch, NJ. She is an assistant professor at Monmouth University (NJ) where she teaches and serves as the Director of the Clinical Psychology Research Center. Dr. Christine is also the Executive Director of Making Daughters Safe Again, with her therapeutic retreats attracting attendants from around the world. She has provided talks and trainings on mental health internationally and has been featured in newspaper, TV, radio and film. Check out her two YWR programs: a 21 Day Overcoming Emotional Eating Program and a 35 Day Depression Relief Program. http://www.mosaicpsych.com/
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
American Psychological Association, (2013, January 9). Poll of psychologists cites emotions as top obstacle to weight loss. Retrieved October 18, 2014, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/01/emotions-weight- loss.aspx
Brumpton, B. B., Langhammer, A. A., Romundstad, P. P., Chen, Y. Y., & Mai, X. M. (2013). The associations of anxiety and depression symptoms with weight change and incident obesity: The HUNT Study. International Journal Of Obesity, 37(9), 1268-1274. doi:10.1038/ijo.2012.204
Chen, Y., Jiang, Y., & Mao, Y. (2009). Association between obesity and depression in Canadians. Journal Of Women's Health, 18(10), 1687-1692.doi:10.1089/jwh.2008.1175
Costarelli, V. V., Demerzi, M. M., & Stamou, D. D. (2009). Disordered eating attitudes in relation to body image and emotional intelligence in young women. Journal Of Human Nutrition And Dietetics,22(3), 239-245. doi:10.1111/j.1365-277X.2009.00949.x
Epstein, L., Temple, J., Neaderhiser, B., Salis, R., Erbe, R., & Leddy, J. (2007). Food reinforcement, the dopamine D2 receptor genotype, and energy intake in obese and nonobese humans. Behavioral Neuroscience,121(5), 877-866.10.1037/0735-7044.121.5.877
Izydorczyk, B. (2012). Neuroticism and compulsive overeating (A comparative analysis of the level of neuroticism and anxiety in a group of females suffering from psychogenic binge eating, and in individuals exhibiting no mental or eating disorders). Archives Of Psychiatry And Psychotherapy, 14(3), 5-13.
Masheb, R. M., & Grilo, C. M. (2006). Emotional overeating and its associations with eating disorder psychopathology among overweight patients with binge eating disorder.International Journal Of Eating Disorders, 39(2), 141-146. doi:10.1002/eat.20221