It’s the question that’s at the heart of it all. Isn’t it really?
They can give you dozens of diets that “work” and even some that will keep you full in the process! But when the sun goes down and the events of the day give rise to countless feelings that strike the switch of cravings for something sweet or something salty… I promise you, no diet in the world will make a difference in you finding your success with food if you’re not at first addressing this underlying issue.
It is a hard pill to swallow, I know! But the reason that I write this for you today is because of the countless times that I have sat in my office across from someone who cannot successfully execute their goals with nutrition (even though I believe they truly want to) because of something deeper that is holding them back.
How Emotional Eating Works in the Brain
If you have read some of my other blog posts such as How Vitamin D Affects Mental Health then you know that a lot of this starts in the cells of our brain – our neurons.
Neurons are unlike any other cell in our body in that they have a “head” and a “tail” to pass signals from one cell to the next.
A signal such as “happiness” or “pleasure” is released from the tail of one neuron and received by the head of the next neuron. What happens in between these cells in the exchange of a signal is VITAL in ensuring that we feel the way that we need to and WANT TO!!!
The intercellular space between neurons is complex. There are a number of things like neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin; as well as a number of chemicals, such as calcium, that work together to allow signals to find their way to the next cell! When a happy chemical, like dopamine, travels from the release of one nerve cell tail, it must be received by the dopamine receptors that sit on the head of the next nerve cell.
These happy chemicals can be released by something as simple as a happy thought or by something as extravagant as a triple chocolate lava cake.
A pretty fascinating thing happens when we take in something that spikes our dopamine levels especially high. When we experience a dopamine rush, such as the ones from substances like sugar, salt, caffeine, drugs, sex, and alcohol, the receptors on the receiving cells become overstimulated. And the human body is absolutely incredible at adapting to this overwhelming stimulus!
Over time, if we give ourselves something that surges our dopamine over and over again, our brain “adapts” to the rush of dopamine by killing off its own dopamine receptors. When we have less receptors for happy chemicals like dopamine, we don’t experience such a “high” or a “rush” the next time that we feed ourselves sugar, caffeine or anything else that spikes our dopamine!
There are 2 concerning problems that arise from this situation:
1. The first problem is that because we now have less happy chemical receptors in our brain. The things that naturally stimulate our dopamine production (such as a happy thought) may not necessarily “do it” for us anymore. If we are less responsive to the things that can satisfy us in every day life, we may then become “dependent” and “crave” the things that can provide greater amounts of pleasure to bring our dopamine levels back up to a point where we feel happy, comfortable and in homeostasis with our psychological and emotional state of being!!!
2. The second problem lies within the realms of what psychologists sometimes refer to as “classical conditioning”. If we tell a dog to sit, we give him a treat. We tell him to sit again, and he gets another treat. Eventually, the dog expects the treat whenever he does a certain thing. When we compare this situation to our own human brains during any time that we feel sad, stressed, or angry; if we continue to feed ourselves something that brings our happy chemicals back up to normal levels during these times, we may essentially “train” ourselves to go for the pantry or the freezer whenever we may feel these feelings again! As someone who has built both my career and lifestyle around health, my concern with this is that research hasn’t yet determined just how “intolerant” of our own emotions we can become if we continually choose to stifle them with food!
How to Overcome Emotional Eating
It is one thing to explain the neurochemistry behind emotional eating, and an entirely different thing to experience it first hand. Once you get beyond what happens at a chemical level, there are layers upon layers of varying individual factors that influence eating habits including emotions, genetics, childhood-related experiences, flavor preferences, allergies and much MUCH more. It is not humanly possible to place every single emotional eating event that ever existed into a nicely folded package to send off to one single intervention destination and expect a miracle of indefinite victories over our lifelong battles with food.
And if no one else has ever told you this before, let me please say this:
I am genuinely and compassionately sorry that it can be so hard to overcome emotional eating.
I truly hope those words have an opportunity to really sink deep into your mind. Why? Because nutrition is hard. Nutrition is actually really freakin’ hard! Even the very healthiest of people that I have worked with have areas in nutrition that they can stand to improve. And that is just how food works – we can always get better at it and we will never be perfect at it. But when we give ourselves opportunity to accept this, and allow ourselves to feel the challenge (and growth) that is involved in eating healthier, then we are able to discover (on a much deeper level) the kind of relationship that we really want to have with our food. And ultimately, we are then able to find the answers with emotional eating that we have always been looking for.
Steps to Overcoming Emotional Eating
Step 1: Feel.
There are plenty of people I have worked with who admit that they can get through an entire bowl of ice cream before they realize that they were actually about to feel something at all. Perhaps their emotions never even had the opportunity to surface because they had sensed it coming on and went for the nearest source of dopamine that they could find! The thing about why sugar, salt and other emotion-relieving foods are so effective is that they actually work!!! If we gain enough happy chemicals from eating addictive foods, then we don’t necessarily have to feel sad at all because we can just relieve that sadness by eating a bowl of ice cream!!! (Yikes.)
So the first thing that we have to do in order to overcome emotional eating is allow our emotions to exist. There are many ways that you can improve your skills in this. Perhaps it makes sense to keep an emotional food journal and write down which emotions you are feeling when you start to get a craving for something. There are also dozens of apps out there that can actually help you track your emotions! One of my favorite apps for this is Sanvello, which can help you not only track, but also identify the exact emotions that you are feeling in that moment!
Step 2: Create a pause.
This is especially true for my people like me who run 1,000 miles a minute! Slowing down to allow ourselves to feel is the utmost important thing that we can do to improve our skill of dealing with our emotions instead of stunting them with food! If it helps to set a timer for 15 minutes and just feel for those 15 beginner minutes than THAT IS INCREDIBLE. If you still feel the urge to eat something after that and you’re not hungry, it is ok! You are just starting out and eventually, you will be able to go many more minutes before you need to eat something. But for now, start here. Don’t be disappointed in yourself or feel guilty if you accidentally overshoot your pausing time frame because every single situation will be different. Your stress level may be at a “10” and those 15 minutes could be very uncomfortable, or your stress level may be at a “6” and you can make those 15 minutes happen easily!
One of the most powerful things that I have ever read on the topic of emotional eating was from a person by the name of Kari Dahlgren. At the time I was scouring the internet in search of new strategies to help others with their emotional eating battles and came across this resource on a whim. The advice she gives is something like this: The next time that an emotion arises that seems too painful or hard to handle, say this to the emotion that you are feeling:
“There is room for you here.”
These words are powerful. And in giving yourself (and your emotion) permission to just exist, you can feel a tremendous amount of peace and relief from the situation that you are in.
Step 3: Understand the Difference
Now before we go on, there is one EXTREMELY important point to note: Having a cookie, or a piece of cake, or a bowl of ice cream (or ANY other food for that matter) is perfectly healthy and normal as long as it is in harmony and balance with other healthy foods in your own diet! Just because you want something sweet does not mean that you are experiencing intolerable emotions. It does not even mean that you are actually biologically hungry or in need of calories for that matter! Yes you can, in fact, eat “fun foods” whenever you want. But the point that I am trying to drive home is that if you are eating large or frequent amounts of dopamine-surging foods during times that you are not biologically hungry, then you may want to do some deeper investigating into whether or not you are dependent on these foods to provide you with something that is helping you manage your emotions and state of wellbeing.
Step 4: Find (MANY) Healthier Solutions
Once you start the journey of increasing your tolerance to feeling emotions, you have made a phenomenal step forward!!! This is a very situational journey and there will be times where you absolutely annihilate your emotional battles with food and other times where you may sit on your sofa, tell yourself that you are going to have that piece of cheesecake in the fridge, and feel the way that you do! To think that this is going to go perfectly every time that you try it, every day, for the rest of your life is (in my opinion) extremely unrealistic and in line with disordered eating patters such as chronic dieting and permanently removing whole foods from your diet. Don’t make that simple mistake of going down a destructive diet pathway with an intervention that is supposed to heal you from that very thing in the first place. It is never going to be perfect. So don’t put that kind of pressure on your relationship with food if you want your relationship with food to be a healthy one!!!
Instead, try thinking of it this way: if you want to continue to win the battle between emotionally eating or actually dealing with your emotions, then find MANY ways to deal with your emotions! Walk, color, garden, rollerblade, read, knit, sing… Any activity of any kind can be used to actually help you deal with emotions, and sometimes they are just there to help you distract yourself so that you can come back to your emotions when you are more emotionally stable! Either way, we know that the only thing we are “solving” by emotionally eating is we are calming ourselves down in that moment…but what I am trying to communicate is that many other things can do that too!
Of all the things I have written about (which I promise you is modest), emotional eating is perhaps one of the nearest and dearest to many. This battle that so many people fight, and often times for most of their lives, is not exactly something that they teach you how to deal with in school. And this is why I am so dedicated to helping people work through it. If you need help with dealing with your emotional issues around food, reach out to me. I have placed my email below and I am here and ready to help you whenever you are ready as well.
All the best!!!
- Lach G., Schellekens H., Dinan T., Cryan J. Axiety, Depression and the Microbiome: A Role for Gut Peptides. Neurotherapeutics. 2018;15(1):36-59.
- Mehak A., Racine S. Understanding “feeling fat” and its underlying mechanisms: The importance of multimethod measurements. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2020;1-5.
***There is a tremendous difference between emotional eating and disordered eating. If you believe that you may have dysfunctional eating patterns, it is imperative that you acquire a TEAM of professionals who can help you manage and work to heal your relationship with food.
***This blog is a tool intended for informational purposes only. This tool does not provide medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk with your doctor before altering your nutritional or medical practices. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on this or any other website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.