When you are just having one of those days (or weeks, or months, or even years for that matter), what is it that you reach for first? Your Instagram feed? Netflix in your pjs? Or is it a bottle of wine and a carton of ice cream? Our bodies have physiologically evolved to know that beyond nourishment and energy, food is now also a completely acceptable source of comfort, and a reliable coping mechanism.
And since that message is now deeply ingrained in our minds, we instinctively crave specific foods to find a balance of not only vitamins or nutrients, but also serotonin, the chemical in our bodies that regulates our moods. This message is known as the wisdom of cravings. This wisdom may help settle the occasional woe, but for many it can lead to a vicious cycle of overeating, obsessing and punishing ourselves for our consumption habits. So while we may be momentarily soothing our current discomfort, regularly turning to food to stifle negative emotions leads to even more shame and guilt.
Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating is not due to a lack of self-control. And honestly, we are not solely to blame for our emotional ties to food. Marketers in the food industry capitalize on this connection between food and emotion to sell more products. They milk the concept that food promises comfort, excitement and belonging. Beyond the wizards behind the curtains, it has been found that eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains – yes, opioids, like what is found in heroin and other narcotics like it. So, the actual calming effect from eating a pint of ice cream is real. And just as drugs are addictive, kicking the habit of overeating or reactive eating can be just like kicking any other addiction.
Being constantly surrounded with emotional eating triggers does not help us in the fight. Boredom, for example, is a common emotional eating trigger. Most people lead stimulating and active lives, and when that stimulation and activity decreases or disappears – even for a moment – many turn to food. Fatigue also plays a role in mindless eating or overeating. There may be external triggers causing us to eat reactively, but it is often heavily tied to confronting our feelings.
However, emotional eating is not the problem, but instead a symptom. Emotional eating is triggered by stress or other strong emotions, so understanding what triggers your emotional eating can be the first step on the road to reversing the habit. If we recognize our emotions in the moment, we can mindfully move away from reactive eating. Emotional eaters are often sensitive people that are struggling with processing their emotions over internal and external stressors. Many turn to food for soothing. Feelings are our body’s response to stimuli, and when we start to experience negative feelings we tend to snap right into problem-solving mode, not stopping to consider what may actually be triggering it.
The most important step on the way to dismantling these habits of emotional eating is flipping the perception of to an understanding of our body and its signals. It is only when we choose self-love over self-judgment that we can start to heal. By choosing self-love, we can open our mind to new ways of dealing with obstacles. Shifting our relationship with food, thus becoming more mindful, will help us handle comfort cravings when they arise. The more we are able to practice processing our emotions with alternatives to eating, the more confident we become when things get tough.
We do not have to give up on the pleasures of life. Allowing ourselves to experience positivity in different ways – including through food – is perfectly fine, as long as it is good for our well-being. If eating gives you pleasure, savor your food and try to not eat when you are not hungry. Don’t get caught up in mindless eating, eating till you feel numb or overeating. Do not deprive yourself, but always nourish your body.