Tag: Emotional eating

Emotional Eating

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To fix a problem, we must first understand the problem. This is a true statement for all that we encounter in life. And one problem that is quite prevalent with those of us who have ever had a weight problem is that of emotional eating.

According to the American Psychological Association:

  1. Many adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress and say that these behaviors can lead to undesirable consequences, such as feeling sluggish or lazy and feeling bad about their bodies.
  2. Thirty-eight percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Half of these adults (49 percent) report engaging in these behaviors weekly or more.
  3. Thirty-three percent of adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say they do so because it helps distract them from stress.
  4. Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.
  5. After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, half of adults (49 percent) report feeling disappointed in themselves, 46 percent report feeling bad about their bodies and more than one-third (36 percent) say they feel sluggish or lazy. After skipping meals due to stress, 24 percent say they feel sluggish or lazy and 22 percent report being irritable. (1)

Do you find yourself racing to the pantry when you’re feeling down or otherwise upset?

Finding comfort in food is common, and it’s part of a practice called emotional eating. Quite often, our strongest food cravings hit when we are feeling at our weakest points emotionally. Emotional eating can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. When we eat to soothe our emotions, this action often leads to eating high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods. Emotional eating is how we often attempt to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Major life events or, more commonly, the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt your weight-loss efforts. The downside to emotional eating is that while it might make us feel better in the moment, the harm it causes far outweighs a momentary benefit. It is not rocket science to conclude that overeating causes  us to become overweight or obese, therefore increasing our risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Obesity is a major contributor to preventive death in the U.S. and greatly raises our morbidity risks associated with chronic diseases, such as hypertension, stroke, respiratory problems and various cancers.

Can you distinguish between physical and emotional hunger?

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to overcome emotional eating. While it is not an easy thing to do, it is far from impossible. I know how eating to pass the moment has only left me more stressed and depressed than before I sat down and began stuffing unhealthy food choices down my throat. I have experienced feeling like a junkie looking for the next fix while scrounging through the refrigerator or pantry looking for sugary and fatty foods. I also know for certain this can be overcome, but it takes full commitment of self in order to do so. It requires a change in thinking and lifestyle. It requires a change in your relationship with food when you have this problem. You can still enjoy food, but it needs to be viewed as a fuel for your body and physical health rather than a short term fix for your stress or emotions. If you are prone to emotional eating, then you must make a permanent change to your lifestyle for you will eventually fall back into this rut. It happens every day, and the evidence is clearly visible if you follow any weight loss forums for any length of time. I have read and studied many of them, and this is the common thread in them all.

But, what can we do?

Find other ways to cope with stress!

Discovering another way to deal with negative emotions is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating. This could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day. It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you.

Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. A walk or jog around the block or a quick round of calisthenics may help in particularly emotional moments.

  • Exercise helps chronic depression by increasing serotonin (which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep and appetite) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which helps neurons to grow).
  • Exercise reduces immune system chemicals that can make depression worse.
  • Exercise increases your level of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
  • Exercise helps by getting your sleep patterns back to normal. We know getting enough sleep can protect the brain from damage.
  • Exercise gives you a focused activity that can help you feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Exercise limits the effect of stress on your brain.

It is helpful to keep a detailed log of what you eat and when and why you eat. This can help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. When we log what we eat, it is a form of accountability to ourselves and it allows us to reframe the question in our mind if we are really hungry or are we going to eat out of boredom or emotional reasons.

Successful and long term weight management require that you ensure that you get enough healthy nutrients to fuel your body. Yes, it can be difficult to distinguish between true and emotional hunger, but if you eat only foods that bring nutritional value to your body throughout the day, it will be easier to still manage your weight.

Acknowledge Behaviors

Practice becoming more aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you pick up a “comfort food,” stop and ask yourself why you’re reaching for it.

Feeling sad, anxious, or lonely?  Identify your feelings, then pause and reflect on the action you usually take (such as reaching for a sweet treat).

Talk to Your Doctor

If you’ve tried addressing your cravings on your own without success, you may want to talk to your doctor. Sometimes, cravings for certain foods can be a sign of an underlying health condition. For example, you might crave certain foods if you are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. Medications can stimulate appetite or cause blood sugar problems, including drugs used to treat depression and bipolar disorder. Other prescription and over-the-counter medications can affect your appetite as well.  Once your doctor is on board, you’ll be able to work together on developing strategies for coping with cravings and their cause.



Sugar Rush

To lose weight, it is not enough to think you can just cut back on the amount of foods you are consuming each day. It is foolhardy to believe you can also out exercise a bad diet. Face it, most of us who have ever had a weight problem also had a problem of craving simple carbs and sugar too. I would be willing to place a bet you never had the same type of cravings for broccoli or green beans, unless you are serving them up with a dose of sugar too. I recognize it is not enough to just say do not eat sugar to those who desire weight loss. We have written quite a bit about why we need to cut sugar out of our diet, but I truly feel we can not address this problem enough. You must also understand why we advocate a sugar free lifestyle in order to move forward with following our methodology here at David’s Way to Health and Fitness.

The Emotional Connection

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Very often, our appetite is triggered by emotions that coax us to wolf down every simple carb we can get our hands on.  While the emotional connection to obesity is not always understood, they are a huge reason why people tend to overeat. A part of your brain called the hypothalamus is where your brain and body connect. The hypothalamus works together with the pituitary gland which sends chemicals to the rest of the body.  This is one of the areas where your weight loss battle is either won or lost. This is where the psychological and physiological need for eating comes from.

You and I both know that when you are eating away your emotions, there is little chance that you are munching down stalks of celery. The reality is, you are far more likely to be snarfing down every cookie in the bag because they look good. When we get emotional, our cravings, almost without fail, will lead us to starchy, sugary, or salty foods loaded with fat. There are five different chemicals we produce naturally which influence our emotions, they are also the key reasons why we tend to eat junk foods.


This is our fight or flight chemical. It tells us to either high tail it from bad situations or to stand and fight.


This is a feel good chemical which is also the major target of antidepressant drugs.


This one drives our pleasure and reward system and is particularly sensitive to addictions. It also helps you to feel no pain.

GABA (gamma-aminobutryic acid)

This one can make you feel like a zombie and is one of the ways that anesthesia may work to reduce your responsiveness to the outside world.

Nitric Oxide

This chemical helps to calm you. This powerful neuropeptide is usually a very short lived gas that also relaxes your blood vessels.

How these chemicals affect you.

What do these chemicals have to do with whether you snack on a cupcake piled high with frosting or a brussels sprout?

Photo by Alex Boi, FLickr free stock photos

Picture your brain as an arcade game. You  have millions of neurotransmitters that are sending messages to and from each other. When your serotonin transmitters fire their signal, they send the message throughout your brain that you feel good. The more this signal is being triggered, the better you will feel. But when your game is lost, that “feel good sensation” is now lost too. Now you can either walk away feeling all bummed out, or you can feed some more coins into the game. We do this to our body by eating more junk foods in order to counteract the drop in our serotonin that we now feel. The temporary relief that sweets provide, can, and will make you more reliant on sugar, which raises your risk of obesity and its related diseases.

Playing another round of our arcade game is little different than how we also use junk foods to provide an immediate rush of serotonin. We can provide ourselves a good rush with a dose of sugar which releases our serotonin. Insulin facilitates serotonin production in the brain, which in turn gives us a boost in mood. It makes us feel better, it masks our stress, pain, boredom, anger or frustrations we may be feeling. However, serotonin is not at work by itself during this process, Those other four chemicals are also fighting to send your appetite and cravings into overdrive.

When our serotonin and dopamine levels are elevated, we feel good. But when these levels come down, we now find ourselves feeling bad. When this occurs,  we often go in search of sugary foods, or those high in simple carbohydrates in order to get back to feeling good. This is no different than how illegal drugs and alcohol work. The user keeps seeking out the high, not always to feel high, but just to get back to not feeling low. When you have no control over your appetite, you are constantly fighting to get back to your place of neurochemical comfort. When these chemicals are depleted, we tend to reach for bad foods to placate ourselves.

When you are knowledgeable of how your emotions can drive you to eat, you can learn to resist your cravings, and ideally avoid them altogether. By eliminating sugar from your diet, and eating healthy, whole foods only, you will find that your feel good hormones will level out so that you always feel more satisfied and never experience hormonal highs and lows that make you seek out those junk foods that only serve to expand your waistline.

Quitting processed sugar might not be as simple as you think.

Withdrawing from sugar can actually cause side effects, such as:





This has led experts to look at how the withdrawal symptoms from sugar can resemble those of certain addictive substances. When someone misuses a substance for a period of time, like cocaine, their body goes into a physiological state of withdrawal when they stop using it. People who consume high amounts of sugar in their diets can similarly experience the physiological sensation of withdrawal if they suddenly stop consuming sugar. Like alcoholics or drug addicts, there is no acceptable amount of the drug or drink of choice for the user. By having a little bit after recovery, this almost always results in the return of a full blown addiction. This is why I do not advocate any diet plan which tells you that you can continue to eat sugar so long as your track it. This is as nonsensical as giving an alcoholic a glass of beer, or an ex-smoker a cigarette and expecting them to stop at just one. If you had little control over sugar and simple carbs in your past, you are highly unlikely to control them in the future. This is just a simple fact of life my friends.

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Food as Entertainment



I remember one night about 15 years ago when I had finished up a plate loaded with a homemade cheeseburger, a ton of fries and a slab of Mounds cake that was enough for two people and waddled to the kitchen and literally threw that plate up on the counter and said out loud, “Why am I doing this to myself? I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry!” The answer was painfully obvious and I said “Because you don’t enjoy anything else.” Food had become my entertainment and so much more.

Sad But True

The amount that I ate that night for that one meal was not really significant in itself. The kicker was that I had eaten all day, everything in sight, including several Little Debbie Cakes. For those of you who don’t know Little Debbie, they are snack cakes in every abominable, delicious variety that you can think of and a few that you can’t. In most of the United States, they are the downfall of many people who say that they want to lose weight but are absolutely unwilling to forego their frozen Swiss Cake or Oatmeal Cream Pie. I had eaten a large breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and grits and a lunch of a huge cold cut sandwich full of crunchy bread and butter pickles, which were loaded with sugar, and about a quarter cup of mayonnaise and lots of cheese, accompanied by most of a bag of Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream Potato Chips. All of this was interspersed with several Little Debbie Swiss Rolls. As you can see, I was not hungry when I delved into that monster burger. I was entertaining myself. I just wanted to eat. Sometimes people think that I don’t identify with their food struggles. That’s amusing. I was unable to control what I ate my entire life until learning to eat David’s Way. When I gave up sugar and other refined carbs, I finally gained control. Until then, food was way more than a source of sustenance. It was entertainment.

Lessons Learned

My Mother had started putting me on diets at the age of four years and I equated sensible eating to starvation and misery. I had tried every miserable fad diet that there was and none of them worked in the long run. I had to get to the bottom of my problem to survive into adulthood. I knew that I had to understand why I was doing this. That’s a necessary step towards changing this behavior. You know what the food is a substitute for if you search your heart. What’s bothering you? You must answer this question to get past the binge behavior that turns into a form of entertainment.

No Man Is An Island

Loneliness and isolation are often culprits in emotional eating. Find ways to connect with others that you identify with or who are involved in activities that interest you. I ziplined the first time at age 62. It was a blast! Find activities that you enjoy. Even a pet can give you a different focus and help to increase your activity. It’s hard to eat at the end of a leash.

Stress Less

It’s easy to view eating as entertainment when you are stressed to the max. If you find  yourself turning to food for fun only when you are stressed out, you need to find ways to decrease your stress. I have been known to take drastic action to do this. I was living in a situation that kept me so stressed out that life was barely worth living and binge eating was the only thing that gave me any sense of control at times. I dumped the abusive relationship and acquired a healthy relationship with food. While there are different types of stress associated with my new life, I am not a victim. I am in control of my destiny. I don’t have the need to stuff excessive amounts of food into my mouth just to exert autonomy. Decide where your stress is coming from and take steps to rectify what you can and see if you still feel the need to stuff yourself into a coma. If your stress is something that you choose to live with, find ways to ease it a bit. Before I made the giant leap into autonomy, I started swimming. This was years before coming to David’s Way and I didn’t know enough about heavy lifting to choose that option. I did know how to swim though. I joined a local YMCA and swam 2 hours a day for 5-7 days a week for 10 years. It made an immediate difference. I was still struggling with my weight because I was still eating sugar but the pleasant afternoons in the pool did give me a measure of control.

Bored Out of Your Mind

Boredom is a common excuse to overeat and to choose poor nutrition over good whole foods. The sugar and sodium laden allure of junk food engages our neurotransmitters in a playful dance as we load up on sugar that stimulates a dopamine release and salt that increases our playful serotonin. Make a list of activities that sound appealing and when you feel boredom setting in, go to your bucket list and get a real boost. There is nothing like an endorphin release from a hard workout or serious play. Be creative. You are not dead yet, don’t act like it.

Accountability Is Important

Find a friend or family member who will hold you accountable and keep them posted on your progress. They may also get involved in your leisure activities or work out with you. Dump those who openly defy your healthy initiative. If they are so close that you can’t get away from them, then refuse to allow them to set the course of your days. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one will.

Responsibility to Others

If you are still tempted to over-indulge as entertainment, remember this. If you damage your health to the point of chronic illness and disability, those who you love the most will be tasked with your care. If these people love you, they will lovingly care for you but do you really want to put this responsibility on your loved ones? Personally, I want to be the one who can care for those around me. I want to be strong and healthy and be the one that others can depend on to be around when they need me. You choose. Sometimes, tragedy befalls us that we don’t have any input into. In those cases, your conscience should be clear. You did your best. Decide if you want to be the patient or the caregiver. A lot of it is in the choices that you make every day.

If You Don’t Have It…

If you cannot resist specific trigger foods that initiate binge eating, don’t have them in your house! It seems obvious, but quite often people find excuses to bring those foods in knowing what’s going to happen. You’re not fooling anyone. Get rid of it and when you do, make sure to restock with healthy foods that you enjoy. When I was growing up, I loved fresh fruit but most people only bought bananas and apples. While I limit the amount of fruit that I eat, when I first started getting a grip on this, I replaced Swiss Cakes with grapes or blackberries. They were a treat and it was a pretty easy adjustment.

If You Bite It, Write It

You simply MUST keep a journal of what you eat. Write it down or track it in your phone but this is your best way to become truly accountable. When you begin to run low on calories, stop eating. Use the Calorie Counter Pro to determine how many calories that you should eat in a day. We recommend attempting to lose a mere one pound per week. It’s easier and your not in a race. It’s the rest of your life.

Pop “The Question”

A good measure of why you’re eating is to ask yourself the question, “Am I hungry?” If you are not and you still want to eat, you may be eating for entertainment. Get out your bucket list and find something to do.

Give It A Minute

If you find yourself about to eat something that may not be in your best interest, wait about 10 minutes. In that time, you can analyze your behavior. Most uncontrolled, binge eating occurs quickly, without thought. Think about what your actions that you are about to commit will do in your plan to move towards healthy goals. Will it fit into that plan?

And of course, we all like to eat. That’s normal. Sometimes that’s the only reason that we want to eat but always remember, food is fuel. Choose wisely and live to reap the rewards.