If you’ve found a pan of brownies to be an ideal television-watching companion, potato chips to be a great way to unwind at the end of a tough day or macaroni and cheese to be the perfect cure for loneliness, you probably know the power of food in stifling emotions.
Many people struggle with emotional eating, also called compulsive overeating, because food can be a powerful mood moderator. Much like alcohol and drugs, it has a chemical effect in our bodies. Traditional comfort foods, such as doughnuts, pasta and potatoes, are high in carbohydrates that when ingested increase serotonin levels in the brain and elevate mood.
Until all the recent publicity surrounding obesity-related diseases and their cost to society, overeating was a socially acceptable drug. But unlike drugs (or alcohol), abstinence from food is not an option; our bodies need it to survive.
The first step to overcoming emotional eating is understanding your triggers. In most cases, it’s any form of discomfort — anger, stress, boredom, loneliness, depression or any other emotion that causes an uncomfortable change in mood. Even positive emotions, like excitement, can be triggers if you find the shift difficult to tolerate.
To identify your triggers, you’ll need to make a conscious effort when the urge presents itself to ask yourself why you want to eat. If the reason isn’t physical hunger, consider what may be happening in that moment that’s causing you to turn to food.
When the urge to eat is unrelated to hunger, allow at least 20 minutes to pass before giving in to the temptation. Use that time to take some deep breaths, jot down what you’re feeling and concentrate on something other than food. Chances are if you can get your mind off the craving and delay the immediate gratification, the urge will subside.
Tracking your emotional triggers in a journal will help you identify where you’re most susceptible. In times when you’re less emotional, you can examine those triggers and determine other things you can try before turning to food.
If you find loneliness is a trigger, make a plan to phone or e-mail a friend at those times. If you’re anxious, you may find exercising or playing with your children a healthy distraction. If you want to celebrate or reward yourself, soak in a hot tub or go to the movies. If you find anger is often at the root of your overeating, take steps to assert yourself and express your emotions in a more healthy way.
Occasionally compulsive overeating is physiological, rather than psychological, as some medical conditions may cause an increase in appetite. It’s important to rule out those factors, so be sure to get a physical and talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
As you strive to overcome emotional eating, you may find support groups or individual therapy can make a big difference in your success. Talking through the issues that drive overeating can help you put old issues to rest and learn alternative, healthier ways to deal with new challenges.