Fitness, health and weight loss top the list of New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. And while you may have your diet and fitness program set, you may not give much thought to how your emotions may get in the way of your health goals.

For many, eating is a pleasurable experience. But some people feel powerless over food, using it as a tool to mask unpleasant feelings. If you find yourself polishing off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a rough day at work, you may be using the sweet frozen treat as a way to cope, and may be an emotional eater.

Science Behind Food and Feelings

Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to a negative affect, including stress, anger, loneliness, boredom, anxiety or depression. While the exact reason why people turn to food to deal with these emotions isn’t quite clear, it may be due to the “feel good” effect of certain foods. You may already know that eating carbs, specifically sugar, stimulates the release of serotonin, which is a brain chemical associated with a lift in mood.

But the food and feelings connection may be even stronger than just a happier state of mind. According to Jennifer Kromberg in an article from Psychology Today, foods like ice cream and potato chips may have the same affect on your brain as addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine. The sugar and fat in these types of foods releases opioids that soothe and calm your brain, similar to the drugs. These types effects may be why it’s so hard for some people to gain control over their eating.

Unfortunately, while certain foods may help you feel better temporarily, they don’t solve the emotional reason behind your eating.

Are You An Emotional Eater?

Turning to food every once in awhile to boost mood or reward yourself is OK. However, if you reach for a Snickers bar -- or three -- every time you’re upset, lonely, sad, tired or bored, you may be stuck in an emotional eating cycle, which never truly addresses the underlying issue.

So, ask yourself:

  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry?

  • Do you turn to food when you’re stressed?

  • Do you crave certain foods when feeling down?

  • Do you find eating turns your depressed mood into a better mood?

  • Do you use food as a reward?

  • Do you treat food like a friend?

  • Does food make you feel safe?

  • Do you feel out of control when you’re eating?

If you answer yes to many of these question you may be stuck in that cycle and using food as a way to stuff your emotions.

Emotional hunger can be overpowering, but it can’t be satisfied with food. While you may feel good in the moment as you’re crunching through your bag of chips, afterwards you may feel worse, full of shame, guilt and helplessness. As the cycle continues, you lose your ability to manage your feelings in a healthy and helpful manner. Additionally, you may have a harder time managing your weight.

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger

Don’t beat yourself up if you answered yes to many of the questions above and find yourself feeling more and more powerless over your eating. It’s often hard to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger, according to Helpguide.org. Knowing some of the differences may help you get a better handle over your hunger, and your eating.

Hunger that comes on fast and strong is considered emotional hunger, not physical. While this type of extreme hunger may strike you after several hours of fasting, it’s emotional hunger if the feeling is connected with an almost uncontrollable need for immediate satisfaction. Food cravings, which are often confused with nutritional deficiencies, are also a sign of emotional hunger. And if you find yourself eating an entire box of crackers while mindlessly watching television, you may be eating to fill a void rather than replenish nutritional stores.

And as mentioned above, eating to satisfy emotional hunger is often followed by more negative feelings. You may feel shame from your uncontrollable appetite or guilt for your poor food choices.

Managing Your Emotional Eating

The hard truth is that if you’re unable to manage your emotions without food, every diet you try will fail. In order to gain control over your eating you must understand the emotions that cause you to turn to food and alternative ways to handle with them.

  1. Identify your triggers. The first thing you need to do to better understand your emotional hunger is the root cause. Whether it’s stress from your job, depression or boredom, understanding the mood that leads to the uncontrollable eating is necessary if you want to regain control. Keep a food/mood diary to help you track your emotional triggers and the foods you reach for to manage them.

  2. Find other ways to deal with your emotions. This may be difficult at first, especially when your body is craving that immediate pay off. Exercise is a mood booster and effective at relieving stress. When a craving comes on, go for a walk or hit the stairclimber. If you’re feeling lonely, call a friend or snuggle with your puppy. A long bubble bath may help calm your mind after an exhausting day. Reading a book, coloring, knitting or strumming a guitar may help keep your hands and mind busy to prevent mindless eating out of boredom. Most importantly, give yourself time, and be kind to yourself when you “fall off the wagon.”

  3. Invest in yourself. Read books about emotional eating to help you gain better understanding of your issues. Or watch videos on the subject. Michelle May and Brene Brown both offer books and videos to help you get started.

  4. Be more mindful of your eating. Pay close attention to your hunger cues and any food cravings they may cause. In addition to your food/mood diary, start planning meals and snacks so you know exactly what you’re going to eat throughout the day. Designate one place as the only eating zone in the house. Turn off the TV and enjoy your food and the ones you share it with.

  5. Get your zzzzz's. Lack of sleep adds stress and promotes the production of hormones that increase appetite. Aim for 7 to 8 hours a night to help your body fight off stress-induced hunger.

  6. Clean house. Rid your kitchen of the foods you reach for when you’re trying to suppress your feelings. Do not go food shopping on an empty stomach and avoid the grocery store during emotional distress to prevent unhealthy food purchases.

  7. Eat regularly. Eating a meal or snack every 3 to 4 hours helps keep physical hunger under control. Plus, having meals and snacks at set times may limit mindless eating.

  8. Don’t hesitate to seek out a Psychiatrist. Their job is to help you identify the root of the problem and can really help you take steps into managing your stress or depression in a productive manner.   

Foods That Help Combat Emotions

While there’s no special diet that’s going to cure your emotional appetite, adding certain foods may build up your defense against the stress and emotions that lead to emotional eating.

Turkey. Tryptophan in turkey increases serotonin production, which may help you feel more calm and relaxed.

Cherries. Fresh cherries increase production of melatonin, which makes a great snack choice for night eaters who have difficulty sleeping.

Tea. Green and white tea are rich in L-theanine, which is an amino acid that helps your body combat stress.

Omega-3-rich foods. Omega 3s may help your battle against depression. Walnuts, flaxseed, soybeans, salmon and tuna are rich in this essential fat.

Dark chocolate. Eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate everyday for two weeks helped reduce cortisol levels in highly stressed people, according to researchers. But to get the most benefit, make sure your dark chocolate is 70 to 85% cacao. If chocolate is a “trigger” food for you then skip this recommendation.

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