Like many of my patients, perhaps as a child you were given some treat like ice cream, chips, candy, or a cookie, or some other favorite food, when something upset you, in a well-meaning effort by parents or caregivers to calm you down and get you to smile again. If so, you were unwittingly programmed for “emotional eating”, i.e., eating to soothe your emotions whenever a problem, or even perceived problem, occurs.
Your immediate reaction to something upsetting is to eat – many people, including my patients, jump in the car and go through the drive-thru of the local fast food place to get a quick ice cream cone or a burger and wolf them down in the parking lot. Or, you raid the cupboards for chips or cookies or even make a full course meal of something that appeals to you at the moment to get you through the upset. Does this sound like you? If so, you’ll want to read my recommendations on how to stop this unhealthy pattern of eating.
Is Your Food Eating You?
You may be surprised to know how many people engage in emotional “binge” eating. They eat out of depression, stress, anger, loneliness, low feelings of self-worth and just plain boredom! It may seem like a harmless thing to do, but in reality it can lead to such dangerous health disorders as bulimia – i.e. binging on food then vomiting it up, or to dangerous excess weight gain. In fact, health experts estimate that about 75% of excess eating is from “emotion” based causes. Emotional eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia affect more women than men with about 10 million women and 1 million men engaging in the behavior. However, there are millions more Americans who simply engage in stress emotional eating.
Most chronic emotional eaters know instinctively that they turn to food (and even other substances like alcohol or drugs) in times of stress. However, you may fall into the occasional emotional eater/drinker group. The following true and false questions from our natural health news team can help you consider which pattern you best fit into:
1. True ___ False ___. Under emotional stress, I am more prone to unhealthy eating or drinking behavior patterns.
2. True___ False ___. I take pride in things I accomplish.
3. True___ False____. I can always find an excuse not to exercise regularly.
4. True___ False____. I find it difficult staying interested/committed to completing a goal.
5. True___ False____. I only do anything if there is a potential for reward.
6. True ___False____. I have confidence in myself.
7. True___ False____. Frequently, I feel guilty/remorseful after eating a lot of food after an emotional crisis.
8. True___ False____. I frequently feel empty, lonely, lacking somehow.
Scoring: If you answered True to questions 1, 3, 4, 5, or 7 you need to make adjustments to your eating/drinking patterns before your health suffers. If you answered True to questions 1, 2 or 6, and False to most of the other questions, you may only be using food, or drink, on occasion to self-soothe. This behavior could, however, result in unhealthy eating patterns in the future.
Feeling Stressed? Don’t Eat, Exercise!
Interestingly, one of the worst things you can do is to gorge on a lot of food when you’re stressed – especially high fat, starchy “comfort” foods that many emotional eaters turn to like fries, cakes and cookies, ice cream etc. Most people who eat under stress often wind up with bad stomach pains, headaches and just generally not feeling well. During stress all your muscles tense up including your muscles of digestion. This results in food not being digested properly and can cause such unpleasant reactions as cramps, stomach acid, gas, from your food not being able to digest completely and laying in your stomach undigested for hours.
As I recommend to my patients who occasionally, or frequently, engage in emotional eating, try some of these activities when you’re stressed out instead of eating:
1. Exercise. I list this first as I feel it is actually the best thing you can do instead of eating unhealthy foods. Exercise burns off stress and produces “feel good” brain chemicals called endorphins which can pull you out of a bad mood pretty quickly and turn off the food alarm.
2. Call a Friend. If you’re upset about something, calling a friend or loved one, can help calm you down before you make a food run. Of course, someone is not always available to talk to, so have a Plan B, like any of the other suggestions here.
3. Breathe. This may sound silly, but deep breathing exercises coupled with the old favorite, “count to 10”, actually really works to calm you down. How? It brings more oxygen into your body! Under times of stress most people shallow/rapid breathe which can actually cause lightheadedness from low blood oxygen levels, which can make you feel worse.
4. Distract yourself. Do something – the laundry, wash the car, walk the dog, turn on some music (not the TV as it tends to encourage eating).
Emotional eating is a serious disorder. It can even lead to life-threatening events of too high blood sugars or continuous vomiting that damages the tissues of the esophagus. These can set the stage for more serious diseases like diabetes, ulcers and even cancer. Take control of your emotional eating today by trying some of the recommendations that I offer my own patients.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News