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Eating My Feelings

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

This week I've been taking some much-needed time off work. I've been meditating, praying, doing yoga, exercising, cooking, drinking more water, all of the eat-pray-love things. I've noticed that during this time I've also been finding it much easier to eat healthier, not only because I'm cooking instead of ordering out (the UberEats delivery folks have become my best friends at this point), but also because I'm making better choices and not going straight for the sugars and carbs that I'm used to.

This week has been much more calm than usual, and I've been able to spend time doing things I really enjoy. So I got to wondering, how much does my mood affect my eating habits? Do different emotions really impact eating choices that drastically? When can a bit of eating one's feelings go too far?

I can think of times when I've been feeling low and I downed a pint of ice cream (Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche for the win 🙌 ) like it was nothing! And I'm not saying I was clinically depressed or deep down in the dumps. Literally it could just be a tough week at work, or an argument with a person I care about, or anxiety about an unresolved situation. Even for those relatively small things, I'd seek comfort in food. There have been times when I've looked back and wondered wow, I really ate like crap last week, why was I so reckless?

According to Dr. A.J. Marsden, a former U.S. Army surgical nurse who now serves as an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., the main reason why people turn to food when they are upset, frustrated, or sad is because eating sugary, high-fat foods releases feel-good neurotransmitters called dopamine in our brains. 

"Dopamine is necessary and plays a major role in the motivational center of the brain, but it can also be triggered by sugary foods, and too much sugar can cause serious problems in our bodies.  Too much sugar can make it more difficult to regulate emotions, thus increasing the chances of emotional eating again in the future," Marsden says.

Basically, eating because you're feeling emotional begets more emotional eating.

And of course, there's the issue of mindfulness.

"Another reason we succumb to emotional eating might be a lack of conscious awareness, or mindless eating. This type of eating occurs when we mindlessly munch through a bag of potato chips and don't even realize it until we are licking the crumbs off our fingers.  Often, mindless eating occurs after the person has experienced some type of negative emotion," she says.

Over the past few years I've gained a fair bit of weight (I'm still cute though!), and my mom used to ask me if I was eating out of emotion. I'd always tell her no way, I'm not depressed, I'm not trying to drown my sorrows! But it doesn't have to be that dramatic or extreme. New York-based psychotherapist Edy Nathan, MA, LCSWR sent me a few questions I asked myself to figure out if there was something to my mom's suggestion.

  • When angry, anxious or upset, do I eat even if hunger isn’t present?

  • Do I know what hunger truly feels like? Is my hunger stomach hunger, or is it in my head, or even my heart?

  • If I want to eat, what feelings would be felt if I didn’t reach for food?

These questions reveal some deeper potential reasons for my sometimes emotional eating habits, and maybe prove my mom right in thinking I've been eating for reasons other than true hunger.

During this calm quiet week, I've done a great job with healthy mindful eating, but I do want to prepare myself for the inevitable next time I am stressed and feel like reaching for that Dulce de Leche ice cream. I don't think it's realistic to strive to get rid of certain emotions, or to tell myself to stop feeling certain ways. Instead I just have to figure out how to change behavior.

Carla Schuit, registered dietitian at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center, shared a few practical tips for maintaining healthy eating habits, even when the emotions might feel like they're getting the best of me:

  • Chew more slowly and allow the brain to catch up with the stomach.

  • Create structure and timing for eating; grazing and mindless munching prevents us from tracking what and why we're eating.

  • Be mindful of portion sizes, even with seemingly healthier nutrient-dense foods like avocados, nuts and cheese.

  • Let go of labeling foods as “bad,” forbidden or off-limits, which only increases feelings of restriction and deprivation.

My doctor told me I need to lose 10-15 points by my next appointment in November, so I better hurry up and put these tips into action! The first step is understanding why my eating habits sometimes go off the rails, do my best to calm my emotions when I can, and when I can't, implement habits that counteract the desire eat my feelings.

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