You’re driving home from work, trying to release stress. But that presentation. You’re not ready. What if you mess up? What if you forget what to say?
As your mind is fluttering, your body made a decision to pull into the store and pick up some mini chocolate-frosted cupcakes.
You pop open the container and take that blissful first bite. Creamy chocolate frosting fills your mouth. Spongy, sugary cake soaks up your drool. For a short yet beautiful moment… you feel better; calm, comforted, and safe.
Based on a statistic from the American Psychological Association, 38% of adults say they’ve overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods because of stress. We might also reach for food to find comfort from grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, etc.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is typically related to the endorphin boost and dopamine release we seek when feeling agitated or emotionally unstable. The foods we go for are often savory, sweet, salty and/or crunchy. While satisfying in the moment, they may leave us sluggish, foggy-headed, in a low mood, with indigestion, or in self-judgment.
Why do we emotionally eat?
When I lost my best friend as a teen, I felt confused and unsupported. I remember waking up in the night, eating 5-10 mini ice cream bon-bons, crying, feeling better, and going back to sleep. What was happening? Well, I was using food as my coping mechanism. Here’s why this can happen.
- We’re physiologically designed to receive pleasure from food. When we eat, endorphins elevate. Dopamine is released. A chemical reaction is happening that results in a “feel-good” sensation.
- If we don’t have healthy tools to deal with emotions, we likely turn to short-term methods of feeling better like unhealthy food, drugs, alcohol, adrenaline-inducing activities, etc.
- Every habit becomes part of a behavior loop. Expert Charles Duhigg describes the 3-part loop as a cue – routine – reward.
How to manage emotional eating: 3 tools
The Art of Allowing
Eat the food. Yes, I’m giving you permission. When the unhealthy food is already in hand, it might not feel possible to “just stop”. What you CAN do is slow down.
Allow each bite to bring the calming sensation you desire. Be present, sit down, breathe, and enjoy. This helps optimize digestion, calorie-burning capacity, and metabolism. The phenomenon is called “rest and digest”.
When our body is in relaxation response (vs. stress response) we process food more efficiently. Also, slowing down with food allows our enteric nervous system (which communicates fullness to our brain) to do its job, so we won’t overeat.
Practice making the healthiest decision for your wellbeing. Ask yourself… Am I physically hungry, or did something trigger this urge? If triggered, what was it, and what can I try to alleviate stress before turning to food? If I’m physically hungry, how can I nourish with nutrient-dense food before indulging in an unhealthy craving?
As a bonus tool, incorporate these foods that naturally enhance dopamine release:
- Dark Chocolate
Pausing, Pleasure, and Practice.
Pause before the storm. A pause is anything that allows for a little space between the stimulus that triggered us, and our response of eating to feel better.
Incorporate pleasure on a routine basis to help lower urges to emotionally eat. Make a list of everything that brings you joy and fulfillment. Schedule in a few of these activities every week.
Lastly… these tools are practice, not perfection. Sure, celebrate progress when you’ve gone 3 weeks without emotionally eating! And, try NOT to demonize yourself if you do choose to eat out of emotion. Take the shame away by owning your decision. Find someone with whom you can share safely when you’ve experienced emotional eating.
Managing emotional eating is not about choosing to have carrots instead of cupcakes every single time. It’s about practicing awareness of how we feel, what we truly need, and choosing healthy ways to process emotions more and more often.
Tessie Tracy helps goal-oriented people overcome emotional eating, binge eating, and body image challenges. She was a competitive athlete for over 20 years, which led her to become a Certified Personal Trainer and CrossFit Coach.
Her own challenges with emotional eating began after the loss of a best friend in high school. This struggle was exacerbated by the extreme calorie-restriction and over-exercising it took to become a bodybuilding champion, which led to body obsession, binging and depression. In her own healing journey, she connected with Emotional Intelligence Work and Eating Psychology, and became certified to coach people in these approaches as well.
Now she’s on a mission to help people unlock authentic body positivity and create sustainable, empowering health behaviors through private and group coaching, speaking, and the H.A.P.I.E. Goal Guide and Habit Tracker!
Header photo by: Tom Sodoge on unsplash
- American Psychological Association
- Charles Duhigg
- Healthy dopamine-releasing foods