Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect feelings with food. When eating for comfort or emotional eating, it’s common to ignore feelings of physical hunger. Instead, food is used to soothe or suppress negative emotions, instead of responding to the feeling of an empty stomach.
Many people experience emotional eating, with research suggesting that people identifying as women may be more likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism. When defining emotional eating, it is important to understand the difference between this and binge eating disorder, which requires support from a qualified healthcare professional.
So, what causes certain food cravings in response to emotions?
Unfortunately, it’s common to be told we have poor willpower if we give in to our cravings, however, this isn’t the case and there is a scientific explanation to explain cravings we associate with certain emotions such as stress.
Ever heard of the fight or flight response? We experience this when we’re exposed to a sudden threat, which causes the release of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. This release causes certain reactions in the body such as increased blood pressure, pulse rate, blood flow to the muscles and breathing rate. Historically, this was useful, however in response to small daily life stressors, it can result in a state of chronic stress.
How does this relate to emotional eating? Evidence has shown that cortisol can impact our food choices, resulting in increased appetite and likeliness to eat. Alongside the response to cortisol, other pathways can begin to form in the brain reinforcing emotional eating behaviours so that over time it becomes an automatic habit in response to an emotion.
How to identify emotional eating
Understanding what triggers the negative feelings that result in turning to food for comfort, is key to identifying emotional eating. Some useful techniques to help you understand patterns and triggers include:
• Understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
• Keeping a food and mood journal
• Using a hunger scale: helping you to familiarise yourself with hunger cues before, during and after meals.
If you feel your life is being impacted as a result of emotional eating, working with a healthcare professional may be helpful. Incorporating techniques such as intuitive eating and gentle nutrition can be beneficial approaches.