How emotions affect our eating behaviours, and what to do about them
Have you ever dealt with stress by eating chocolate, or celebrated good news by ordering a pizza? If so, chances are you’ll know what Emotional Eating feels like.
Emotional Eating (EE) is a relatively new term, relating to the consumption of food in response to changes of our inner experience based on outside events. While the chocolate and pizza examples above are common – and inconsequential in moderation – EE is considered a ‘risk behaviour’ and has been described as a gateway habit that may lead to more serious eating disorders (1).
And it’s not just when we feel down or low that we have to be careful …
While it has long been thought that EE relates only to consumption of food in response to negative feelings (sadness and stress are typically used in mood manipulation studies), a number of recent findings have shown a positive mood can also cause increased food intake (2). So while we may want to celebrate, it is worth noting that such celebrations may be best enjoyed with a self-awareness of underlying feeling, with regards to our connection with cuisine.
Times have changed since the days of hunting and gathering, when eating was a purely survival act. Nowadays, gorging for taste and decadence is not uncommon. There is a Hare Krishna saying that goes, “The tongue is never satisfied”. This concept, matched with bouts of insatiable emotional roller coaster riding, can lead to massive overindulgence.
Hunger is no longer the driving factor that dictates to us whether eating is suitable or otherwise, and many people erroneously believe that when they lose weight, they’ll reshape their relationship with food (3). This relationship with food is ultimately determined by our relationship with ourselves, though.
High scores on emotional eating scales are related to high scores on several other scales, such as anxiety and depression (4). In Italy, for example, eating disorders accounted for 7,000 deaths each year, making them the mental illness with the highest mortality rate (5).
Changes in emotional eating noticeably affect the exercise/weight loss relationship. Changes in self-regulation and mood affect the exercise/emotional eating relationship (6).
So, working on discipline and temperament increase our chances of exercising, and exercising will help us to feel good. Feeling good leads to better food choices. It is an upward spiral either way.
If you’re feeling a little glum, try journaling, affirmations and some light breathing exercises, which may just help raise your mood sufficiently to head out for that 5K.
A root cause psychological treatment is needed in order to best handle EE. Such root cause treatments include increased provision of Emotional Intelligence (EI) in schools and workplaces. Researchers have found that people high in Emotional Ability (EA) made significantly better food choices, even when compared to those with sound nutritional knowledge but low EA levels (7).
That is to say, a nutritionist who has unchecked emotional baggage is likely to be more binge-prone than somebody with rudimentary nutritional knowledge but feels comfortable and content with their life story, past and present.
The study concluded that a “greater focus on goal-relevant emotional thoughts can subvert underlying tendencies to engage in unhealthy but hedonically rewarding decisions”.
In summary, prioritising self-understanding and thinking kinder thoughts about ourselves will help decrease our desire to bury issues in sugar and junk food.
1: (Geliebter & Aversa, 2003, cited by Zysberg, 2018) 2: (Bongers and Jansen, 2016) 3: (Phipps Woodall, 2011) 4: (Bongers and Jansen, 2016) 5: (Zam et al, 2010) 6: (Annesi, 2018) 7: (Kidwell, Hasford and Hardesty, 2015)