Overcoming Emotional Eating


Part 2 of 10

By Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz

For Ann, nighttime binge eating starts after work with a trip to the supermarket to buy bags of potato chips, a couple of pints of ice cream, and chunks of her favorite chocolate. Then she heads home, changes into comfortable clothes, and turns on the TV. Settling into bed surrounded by her favorite foods, she begins what she describes as “zoning out”—eating until she feels calmer—often to the point of falling in and out of sleep well before bedtime.

Although this is a typical evening for Ann, three hours after starting her binge, she is amazed to find that she has finished all the food. On a not-quite-conscious level, she senses the chips and chocolate allay her anxiety in some way. She’s also concerned about these binges because she wants to lose fifty pounds and stop zoning out, but she hasn’t figured out how to accomplish this. Dieting hasn’t helped, nor have willpower or the techniques she’s read about in self-help books. In the meantime, Ann remains vaguely depressed and distressed, and dependent on food binges to manage her darker moods.

Feeding Negative Feelings with Food

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “emotional eating,” turning to comfort food to soothe negative feelings (such as depression, anxiety, or loneliness) but also to enhance joyous, celebratory emotions (in response, let’s say, to a wedding, birthday, or promotion). If you often eat to manage your feelings and to self-soothe—in other words, for reasons other than hunger and having a healthy appetite—it’s likely you’re an emotional eater.

Some health professionals describe this overeating style as “compulsive overeating,” “food addiction,” or as a way to “self-medicate.” No matter what it’s called, many of us turn to food to relieve emotional tension because it works. Here’s why.

The Food-Mood Connection

The idea that the food you eat can actually medicate your mood and vice versa—that your mood may motivate you to make certain food choices—was given the scientific stamp of approval in the 1970s when Judith Wurtman, PhD, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uncovered a fascinating facet of the emotional eating enigma. Call it nutritional neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, the study of food and mood, or psychological nutrition (our term for it), Wurtman launched a new field of nutrition research that has confirmed what many of us know intuitively: what you eat affects your mind and mood, your tendency to pile on pounds, even the quality of your life.

When Wurtman and her husband, Richard Wurtman, MD, also at MIT, first linked food with mood, it was based on their discovery that both naturally occurring sugar and starch in carbohydrate foods (such as potatoes and whole grains) and sugar added to food products (such as cookies and cake) elevate a powerful chemical in your brain called serotonin. Even more fascinating was their discovery about the impact serotonin and other neurotransmitters (substances that pass information from cell to cell in the brain) have on your every mood, emotion, and food craving.

For instance, about twenty minutes after you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, your brain releases serotonin; in turn, you feel more relaxed and calm. Want to feel more perky? Consume a lean, high-protein food such as fish, and the substance that’s released (norepinephrine) lets you feel more awake and energetic (unlike the kick you get from caffeine, you’re not stimulated, just more alert).

It’s a Vicious Cycle

Here is where the food-mood link really gets interesting. Since the Wurtmans’ research, we’ve had strong clinical evidence that carbohydrates can be calming, protein-based foods can perk you up, and certain fats in food end up as endorphins—substances in the brain that produce pleasurable feelings. But now we also know that the sugary and sweet or crunchy and fried processed food products that emotional eaters most often choose to get a serotonin high actually contribute to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals that can cause your emotions to plummet, leading to a serious case of the doldrums.

In this way, the food-mood syndrome becomes a vicious emotional cycle. You’re feeling down, so you reach for, say, a prepackaged brownie. Sure, the brownie’s sugar and white flour carb content will soothe and calm you, but its high sugar content has a hidden side effect: it actually depletes some nutrients that could help combat depression. The sweet concoction may somehow soothe your soul, but isn’t it ironic that at the same time, it may also contribute to anxiety, depression, and other unpleasant emotions?

Be “B” Wise

While most of us try to cope with our emotions, food, and weight with the food-fretting eating style—dieting, counting calories or carbs, measuring portion size, restricting or avoiding foods, and continuing to worry about our weight (for more about this, please see “Are You a Food Fretter?”)—there are many effective, proactive steps you can take. For instance, consider becoming “B” wise.

From dreary doldrums to a deeper depression, various B vitamins—including B1, B2, niacin, folic acid, and B12—can help you bust the blues. To help defeat depression, “B” wise and consider the following guidelines when deciding which foods to eat.

Choose fresh whole foods. One of the B vitamins, folic acid in particular, is linked to depression, as are other B-family relatives that are processed out of refined foods: B6, niacin, and B12. Some especially good B-abundant blues busters are unprocessed, unrefined grains (oats, millet, brown rice, etc.), fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. Vitamin B–rich greens such as spinach are especially good for this.

Shake the sugar habit. Consuming a lot of refined white sugar both damages and destroys B vitamins in the body; in this way, it contributes to deficiencies. Eliminate sugar from the diet, and depression often lifts—although why this is so isn’t well understood. One theory is that the “high” a person derives from sugar is due to elevated glucose (blood sugar) and endorphins, which produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria. When a diet is rich in foods loaded with vitamin B and low in sugar, the levels of B vitamins, glucose, and endorphins remain stable, reducing the chances of depression.

Avoid or limit alcohol or caffeine. Consuming too much alcohol and caffeine can cause the loss of certain B vitamins—and deficiencies of vitamins B6 and niacin, especially, can bring you down. Not only does excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption reduce the absorption of B vitamins, but it also contributes to protein and mineral deficiencies.

Many of us have felt sad or have had the Monday morning blahs at times; others—more than fifteen million Americans—experience serious depression during their lifetime. Include more foods high in the B vitamins, and you may improve your mood and be less likely to experience depression linked to emotional eating.

Overcoming Emotional Eating

The science that studies nutrients in the foods we consume, and the way they influence our brain chemistry and emotions, provides a peek into how food and the mind and body work together. By being aware of whether you “feel” like eating to appease a healthy appetite, each food you choose to eat may be looked at as an opportunity not only to feed your body but also to fine-tune your moods and emotions.

Here’s the prescription for overcoming emotional eating and choosing instead to eat when your mind-body is ready to “welcome” food and anticipate it for the pleasure and nourishment it will bring:

Step #2. Eat for pleasure—when you have an appetite and you’re experiencing feel-good feelings.

In other words, the key to success is making a commitment to eating for pleasure—when you have a healthy, authentic appetite for food and you’re anticipating the pleasure of eating…and experiencing true nourishment.

For more about overcoming emotional eating, read the chapter “Access Your Appetite” in Make Weight Loss Last.

Next post:

Think outside the diet to make weight loss last with Step 3 of our BE A SUCCESSFUL LOSER series, “Eat Real Food,” posted on our NewView blog.

You’ll get plenty of clarity about what’s true and useful—or not—by keeping up with nutritionist Deborah Kesten, MPH, and research scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD, the writers of this post, by following them on Twitter, liking them on Facebook, or sending us an email.

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