When it comes to facing our toughest challenges around food and weight, being an emotional eater can make the journey even more complex. Despite our best intentions, many of us find comfort in food when we're dealing with emotions like sadness, anxiety, boredom, stress, loneliness, or exhaustion. Food can be a source of comfort.
The desire to manage unwanted emotions often drives us towards emotional eating.
Even though emotional eating might seem like a problem, it actually acts as a solution. It can be a perfectly understandable strategy to cope with emotional discomfort because eating instantly provides a sense of relief. (Except when we do it too frequently, leading to guilt, shame, digestive issues, brain fog, and, worst of all – weight gain.)
However, emotional regulation isn't the sole factor influencing our emotional eating. So, we're going to explore a different set of influences, particularly for those struggling with being an emotional eater:
Did you know that many of us have specific eating patterns and make certain nutritional choices that can drive us towards emotional eating?
For an emotional eater, food becomes a way to find comfort and ease the emotional burden. The good news is that once we become aware of these nutritional factors, we can empower ourselves to overcome emotional eating more easily than we might have imagined.
Let's delve into the four key nutritional influences on emotional eating for those grappling with being an emotional eater:
Dieting: We live in a world saturated with diets. Nearly half of all adults on this planet have, at some point, tried a diet. Dieting is often introduced at a very young age.
Think about it. How long have we been dieting? For many, it's been nearly a lifetime, but dieting essentially teaches us how NOT to eat:
It encourages under eating.
It cultivates a perception of food as the enemy.
It demands we suppress our natural appetite.
It can lead to self-punishment if we can't adhere to the diet perfectly.
So, how does this relate to emotional eating for an emotional eater?
When we deprive our bodies, when we don't meet our caloric energy needs from food, our bodies take notice. Consistent calorie deprivation is viewed by our bodies as starvation conditions, triggering the emergency response of our brain: the sympathetic nervous system.
When our nutritional status is interpreted by the brain as life-threatening, it reacts wisely:
It heightens our appetite – we feel HUNGRY!
Our evolutionary instincts are geared towards survival. Life must persist. Our brain is doing its utmost to protect us. So, in times of inadequate nutrition and low food intake, our brain pushes our appetite to the maximum.
In this state, we are DRIVEN to eat.
The crucial lesson here is that dieting imitates the starvation response, tricking the brain into believing our life is in danger. What's interesting is that most people perceive this 'unwanted eating' this insatiable appetite, and this lack of control over food as 'emotional eating'.
To our consciousness, it FEELS like emotional eating because it occurs as an unstoppable, voracious sensation. Yet, it's all driven by our survival biology.
Macronutrient Imbalance: Macronutrient imbalance is another significant nutritional influence on emotional eating that should not be underestimated, especially for someone dealing with being an emotional eater. Let's consider three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
Here's the deal:
The quantity and approximate proportions of these three macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbohydrates – in our diet can significantly impact health, energy, appetite, and weight.
Numerous diets and nutritional systems you may have encountered over the years emphasise these macronutrients and their proportions differently.
Some diets emphasise high protein. Others are higher in fat. Some focus on low or very low carbohydrates. Others advocate a higher carbohydrate approach.
Each diet impacts the person following them in ways unique to their own physiology and genetics, especially for an emotional eater.
But here's the important bit:
When deficient in any macronutrient, we find ourselves leaning towards emotional eating. A low-fat diet invariably leads to fat cravings. A low-carbohydrate diet usually leads to carb or sugar cravings. A low-protein diet often results in overall hunger and various cravings.
You may have experienced this yourself as an emotional eater. Have you ever tried a low-sugar diet only to find yourself yearning for sweets? Or you've attempted a diet low in bread, grains, and all kinds of carbs, only to find yourself craving pasta.
The point here is that when we are "imbalanced" in one or more of these three macronutrients – protein, fat, and carbohydrates – we can find ourselves in a state of restlessness and craving.
We are driven, seemingly against our will, to consume the very foods we have chosen to avoid.
This emotional eating experience is fuelled, in part, by our simple desire for the foods we've been limiting.
In addition, it's often driven by a nutritional deficiency. For an emotional eater, food becomes a way to fill emotional gaps.
Meaning: The human body cannot remain healthy if we are too low in essential fats, too low in protein, or even too low in carbohydrates.
So when the brain senses a nutritional deficiency, it acts wisely again:
It screams HUNGRY.
So, if you notice this phenomenon in your own life or if you live or work with someone who's an emotional eater:
Unless you have a specific medical condition, consider avoiding diets or nutritional approaches that intensely restrict a particular food group.
Find a middle ground in your eating, a sustainable way to eat.
If you're limiting one of the food groups, don't be surprised when you crave it; don't waste any time berating yourself for it.
It's perfectly fine to be a nutritional explorer. It's a valuable practice to experiment with different dietary approaches. Just recognise that when you find yourself emotionally eating on such a diet, it may signal that this particular nutritional experiment isn't something you want to sustain long-term.
Emotional Eating Catalysed by Poor Meal Timing: We live in a world that's defined by timing, rhythms, and circadian cycles.
Your heartbeat is a vital rhythm. Your lungs' breathing is a rhythm. Your brainwave patterns are a rhythm. Like a woman's monthly cycle, our sleeping and waking cycles are important rhythms.
This is all part of the magic and wonder of life. If we interfere with these rhythms, things can go south quickly. However, what most people overlook is this:
Our eating rhythm is essential when it comes to good nutrition and a healthy relationship with food. We are designed to digest and rhythmically burn calories. When we explore Circadian Nutrition, we discover that when we eat is often as crucial as what we eat.
For example, did you know that:
The body digests and burns calories most efficiently when the sun is at its peak.
The body has its lowest capacity for these processes in the late evening and early morning hours.
When we skip meals or delay eating when we're genuinely hungry, the body responds by intensifying our appetite and urging us to eat.
Here's the challenge. Many people find themselves falling into one of the following patterns, especially if they are an emotional eater:
Working through their lunch break.
Not eating due to being excessively occupied.
Having a work schedule that forces prolonged periods without food.
Attempting to hold off from eating for as long as possible because of a covert desire to diet and lose weight.
When this happens, the body takes notice.
We are out of sync with the natural rhythms of our nutritional needs. The result is an urgent, powerful physiological hunger characterised by a state of agitation. It's a form of emotional eating catalysed by our biology. So, if you want to optimise your metabolism and have a more manageable, natural appetite, you need to pay attention.
Our role is to listen to our body and hunger and learn to nourish it more rhythmically.
So, if you find that you're emotionally eating, ask yourself:
Do I skip meals?
Do I force myself not to eat because I want to lose weight?
Do I go unnaturally long periods without eating, and when I finally do eat, I don't want to stop?
If you answered yes to any of these, the adjustments your body is asking you to make are straightforward. By eating more regularly and rhythmically, you'll experience the benefits of increased energy, improved mental clarity, fewer food cravings, less emotional eating, and a reduction in weight for many.
The Impact of Excess Sugar on Emotional Eating: For those struggling with being an emotional eater, sugar can feel like a drug addiction.
When we talk about sugar, it's essential to remember that we have five types of taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury. We have a significant number of sweet taste buds, most of which are located in the middle and towards the front of the tongue – exactly where most of our food lands.
And what are those sweet taste buds doing on our tongues?
Well, they're essentially waiting for something sweet.
The wisdom of life didn't give you sweet taste buds to torture you. They are there to provide sensation, pleasure, and to inform us that when you've found something sweet, it can't harm you. That's because there are no poisonous sweet foods in nature.
The wisdom of life has also programmed our brains to respond to the presence of sweet foods in the environment by urging us to eat more. That's because, thanks to evolution, sweet foods are abundant in summer and autumn, indicating that winter is approaching, and we should consume as much of the sweet stuff as we can because lean times are on the horizon. We need to fatten up.
In simple terms, sugar is designed to make you want to eat more. So, it makes biological sense why it can be such a problem for so many people, especially those dealing with being an emotional eater. On the one hand, sugar provides us with a deep pleasure chemistry release that's almost instantaneous. And on the other hand, our DNA dictates that we consume more whenever the brain detects it on the tongue.
So, if you find yourself turning to sugar for emotional satisfaction and relief, consider these suggestions:
Stop any self-attack, self-judgment, or self-hate. All these responses trigger a stress reaction that will drive you to eat emotionally.
If you do indulge in something sweet, do it slowly, savouring each bite and extracting as much pleasure as you can. Be present. Get what you want. Relax. Eating in this way will help you naturally limit the amount of sugar you consume.
Ensure you're not on a low-protein or low-fat diet. Oddly, this can lead to sugar cravings.
If you're craving something sweet, try drinking some vegetable, bone, or miso broth right when the craving arises. The mineral and electrolyte content in these broths often helps reduce cravings.
No matter how much sugar you consume, forgive yourself. Punishing yourself will only intensify the cravings the next time. Often, we crave something sweet when we're feeling guilty or shameful.
By now, I hope you're beginning to recognise how our nutrition and eating style can steer us towards emotional eating.
The key to transforming emotional eating is to be open to what it's trying to teach you.
Sometimes, emotional eating urges us to find new ways to regulate our emotions other than turning to food. At other times, it prompts us to take a closer look at what and how we eat, if you need any help why not join my Private Facebook Group, take part in one of my courses, or enjoy some of my other blog posts on emotional eating