Emotional Eating - How Nutrition Can Help
Emotional Eating: is there a role for nutrition?
Are you prone to reaching for a chocolate bar when you are feeling stressed? Do you find yourself peering into the fridge whenever you are feeling overwhelmed or under pressure? Or perhaps a large bag of crisps gets you through a heavy day at work.
If this sounds familiar, then chances are you have experienced emotional eating. You may eat out of boredom, stress, habit or heightened emotion – and you are not alone. Most of us have been there.
However, when emotional eating becomes a frequent behaviour, it can lead to significant issues such as blood sugar imbalances and poor nutrition and ultimately weight gain. If you find that you regularly use food as a means to soothe and/or avoid uncomfortable emotions, then this can have further implications for your psychological and social wellbeing over time.
Emotionally-led eating is a complex issue driven by multiple factors. These include your environment, past experiences and learned behaviour, and also your biochemistry and physiology. The more developed your emotionally-led eating patterns are, the more you may be required to address them using a therapist or practitioner specifically specialised in your issue.
What you eat has an influence over your ability to curb your emotional eating and I am focusing on this here. I am looking specifically at the way nutrition can help you to recover from emotional eating. Quite often my weight loss clients will work with me on their nutrition to tackle physiological issues, alongside a CBT specialist or counsellor who works on the more psychological aspects of emotional eating. Please contact me if you would like more information on my weight loss programs.
What is emotional eating?
Also known as ‘comfort eating’, emotional eating is the practice of eating for reasons other than hunger or nutrition. You might find yourself eating because you are sad, stressed or lonely; or maybe you use food as a reward. Food is wonderful at comforting us for many reasons; it can feel immensely soothing, but even more, it can distract from the daily stresses that we encounter.
We aren't born with emotional eating patterns - they are learned, usually from an early age. For example, a child who is rewarded with sweets for doing well on a test, may grow up using sweets as a reward for doing a good job. Similarly, if a child is given a bag of crisps as a way to stop them crying, they may grow up linking comfort with eating crisps.
Over time, emotional eating can override your body's natural hunger and fullness signals, causing you to eat more than you may need or even want. It can also interfere with your ability to make conscious and healthy food choices, which may lead to weight gain, blood sugar imbalances and poor nutrition and ultimately ill health.
What are the signs of emotional eating?
It's OK to eat from a place of emotion every now and then - we are all human. But if you find that you are regularly eating food when bored, stressed or depressed; you may be emotional eating.
Common signs of emotionally-led eating:
• Your eating habits are linked to the amount of stress in your life
• You eat when you are not hungry or when you are full
• You reward yourself with food
• You eat to soothe difficult feelings or to stop yourself from feeling emotion
• You often eat to avoid or distract from stressful or challenging situations
Dealing with emotional eating – how can nutrition help?
It is important to understand that emotional eating is much less about the emotion, rather the chemistry behind that emotion which is causing you to seek comfort in food. When we are stressed and cortisol is high, we tend to gravitate towards sweet and/or fatty food combinations. High cortisol can also cause us to crave salt - hence that bag of crisps or salted peanuts can become very appealing.
Insufficient sleep can also lead to carbohydrate cravings as appetite is increased, while satiety is reduced. Cue over eating.
So by working with the underlying imbalances which lead to emotionally driven food cravings, you can maintain a sense of peace and satisfaction, without attempting to rely on willpower alone.
This is where nutrition comes in…
1. When you are feeling sad and/or insatiable
What's driving the craving: feeling sad often leads to one of two things: zero appetite or an insatiable desire to numb ourselves with food. The later is allowing us to conceal and quash uncomfortable emotions that we find hard to deal with. While the former is a quite natural reaction to sadness, the latter can be caused by low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The most efficient way to boost serotonin is to increase our intake of sugar and carbohydrates, so it is no surprise that we often crave these foods when we are feeling low.
The sugar-serotonin connection
Serotonin is made from tryptophan – a dietary amino acid found in protein foods. However it is often the least abundant amino acid and so has a tendency to lose out when competing with other amino acids for transport to the brain. But when carbohydrates are consumed (which break down into simple sugars), insulin levels rise to transport amino acids out of the blood and in to muscle. However, unlike most other amino acids, tryptophan binds to the protein albumin, which is immune to insulin signalling. So carbohydrate intake results in (relatively) higher tryptophan levels in the blood, giving it priority for transport to the brain.
Once tryptophan gets to the brain, it can be converted into 5-HTP, which in turn is converted into serotonin – the hormone that makes us feel good, relaxed, full and sleepy (serotonin converts to melatonin).
Vitamin B6 and magnesium are needed as cofactors for the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin.
What to do instead: choose wholefood sources of carbohydrates like starchy veg, fruit, nuts and beans instead of things like crisps, cakes and bread. Don't cut out carbs altogether as this can lead to binge eating as our brains crave glucose - just be more mindful of the carbs you choose - high fibre, low sugar, wholefood versions are best. Also increase your intake of tryptophan rich foods - like turkey, chicken, salmon, tofu, eggs and edamame beans.
It's also important to eat foods rich in the cofactors for making serotonin - those high in vitamin B6 and magnesium, like green leafy veg, mushrooms and nuts like walnuts and brazils, as these will help the conversion from tryptophan.
2. You've had a bad night’s sleep
What's driving the craving: the morning after a bad night's sleep is prime emotional eating time. This is because less sleep can lead to increases in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) which can lead to increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings. You'll probably not really feel like preparing a healthy balanced breakfast and instead reach for a quick and easy croissant or toast and jam.
What to do instead: start with hydration. Rehydrate with plenty of water (at least 500ml) or try coconut water to boost potassium, vitamin C and other hydrating nutrients such as sodium and magnesium. Make sure that your breakfast is protein-rich, with plenty of greens or berries (or both) and healthy fats to rectify any blood sugar imbalance.
3. When you are suffering from PMS
What's driving the craving: Symptoms of PMS such as sadness and irritability are closely linked to changing levels of oestrogen, serotonin and progesterone through your cycle. As oestrogen drops during the second part of your cycle, serotonin can drop also. A low progesterone to oestrogen ratio can also increase the severity of symptoms experienced.
Increased carb-cravings may also be noticed during menopause and may contribute to increased weight gain at that time. This is because as oestrogen falls, so does serotonin, leading to increased carb cravings.
What to do instead: start by curbing sugar-cravings with high fibre starchy vegetables rather than cutting carbohydrates entirely. This will help to satisfy without triggering blood sugar imbalances. Supporting your liver by increasing your intake of dark green leafy vegetables can further help to balance oestrogen levels in the body. As well as this, ensuring plenty of vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium is vital to keep PMS at bay, as they play a role in hormone balancing and regulation.
4. When you are feeling lonely
What's driving the craving: isolation and/or feeling disconnected with others.
What to do instead: reach out. Realise that loneliness is a prevalent issue and you are not alone in how you are feeling. There is no nutritional solution for loneliness – nourishing your soul is key to resolving this issue. Take some time to figure out ways in which you might start to reach out. Could you join a class? Have you always wanted to learn a language or start yoga? Sharing a common interest is a great way to connect with new people. If this feels like too much, maybe you could reach out to a good friend and meet for a walk. Feeling connected (and having a purpose) can reduce your need for comfort from food, as your needs are being met in other ways.
Connection releases the hormone oxytocin - our feel good hormone. It can be triggered from social interaction, cuddles, laughing, listening to your favourite music or playing with your pet. High levels of oxytocin is linked to a lower appetite.
Emotional eating can be a complex issue, with several behavioural components. If you are seriously struggling with this form of eating, then it may be time to seek professional support. Working with a nutrition professional can help you to reduce your cravings and improve your physiological health. It is also important to address psychological aspects of emotional eating and I can put you in touch with therapists who can help you alongside improving nutrition.
There are so many resources that can help. Don't suffer alone. If you would like to discuss your nutrition with me in confidence, please do get in touch.
You can arrange a confidential, free health review HERE. Or pop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org