Emotional Eating: Why You Do It

Dec 31, 2021  -  Nutrition & Wellness


Do you have the instinct to reach for the “junky” and sugary foods and even adult beverages when you are feeling emotional? Whether it is work stress, financial stress, relationship struggles, health concerns, etc. those types of external stressors can be the root cause of your emotional eating. Well, I’m here to say that you aren’t alone. I am of the belief that we all on some levels are inherently emotional eaters. Some more so than others, but we are all guilty of “eating our emotions” from time to time. Myself included. If you really stop and think about it, when you finish working out and are feeling great what are your tendencies? You want to continue that high and feel-good feeling so you eat maybe some fruit or some lean protein with veggies. And opposite holds true when you are feeling sad or stressed. You want to continue with those downer feelings and you reach for those unhealthy carbohydrates and sugary foods to so called drown your sorrows. But why is that? Why do crave those types of foods when we are feeling a certain way? Hormones. Hormones seem to be the culprit….at least play a role. The major hormones we are going to discuss for the purpose of this topic are cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin. But before we jump head first into hormones, let’s first circle back to emotional eating and how to recognize the difference between emotional eating or true hunger eating.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “there are several differences that might help clue you in to what you are experiencing.” For instance, physical hunger develops over time, you desire a variety of food groups, you have zero negative feelings about eating, and you feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating. Emotional eating, on the other hand, comes about suddenly and abruptly, you only crave certain foods, you may binge on certain foods and not feel the sensation of being full, or you feel guilty or shame about eating (Mayo Clinic). But why food? Well, negative emotions can bring about a sense of emptiness and leave you feeling a void. It is believed that this void can be filled with food as it can create a false sense of comfort and of course an immediate gratification. So, it’s not all your fault!

Ghrelin, although not one of the major hormones I plan to discuss, is an important player in the game and is one that should be understood before we go further. Ghrelin, also referred to as the “hunger hormone” is what actually signals to your brain that you are hungry. When you are stressed or emotional, more ghrelin is released which explains why people tend to eat when they are emotional. Your hunger levels are increased by the sudden release of ghrelin. Speaking of stress, when we are experiencing a sympathetic response to stress or “fight or flight,” cortisol is released within the body. Cortisol is our stress hormone that is what essentially triggers the fight or flight response. This release of cortisol can cause our bodies to crave sugary and easy to process foods. According to Clinical Psychologist Susan Albers, “high levels of cortisol can cause the body to crave unhealthy carbohydrates. You may feel strong desires to eat very sugary or processed foods, or highly salty foods.” This may be because your body has the sensation it is running or fighting for its life; therefore, it craves and desires a quick burst of energy from a fast-digesting food source. And this is where dopamine comes into play.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone, which essentially helps signal the brain that it is receiving a reward. This is why when you eat the types of foods you consider comfort foods and ones you enjoy, the brain views this as a reward and releases a rush of dopamine which causes you to want and crave more and more. I am sure you have heard people say, “food is like a drug.” Well, this statement isn’t completely wrong or inaccurate. The brain actually views those types of food as a sort of drug and can create an unhealthy and addictive response. With all of the processed foods on the grocery store and convenience store shelves, it is no wonder many struggle with their relationship with food. Marketers are smart and do this for a reason. They too know the addictive quality of those foods and this factor is taken into account during the processing stage of food. I don’t want to get off track here, but bottom line is that when foods are processed or highly processed, all or most of the nutrients are removed and replaced with sodium, sugar and fat. So, those addictive foods are addictive for a reason. Again, not completely your fault!

Finally, there’s serotonin, which is the body’s main “feel good” hormone. Serotonin is the hormone that leaves you feeling happy or excited, however, a low level of serotonin can have the opposite effect. Because of this, it can actually lead to depression or anxiety. It is an extremely important hormone when it comes to controlling our emotions. Serotonin cannot reach the brain on its own, which means the brain must produce its own serotonin it needs to use. Serotonin requires tryptophan, which is an amino acid derived from plants and animals, to be produced. According to Medical News Today, some foods containing tryptophan include: “turkey, eggs, cheese, soy products, and salmon.” However, it is important to note that consuming foods containing serotonin doesn’t necessarily mean the hormone will reach the brain, and if it does it may be miniscule amounts. While you may not be able to directly boost serotonin levels, you can increase tryptophan. I already touched on food but there are other ways to boost your tryptophan levels, but what are some other ways that will not only increase your tryptophan but will help minimize your emotional eating.

My #1 go to way to turn my mood around is exercise. Getting some exercise in such as jogging, swimming, biking, or walking can create the ideal environment for tryptophan to actually reach the brain. Next is light. I am sure you are all familiar with winter depression. That is because research suggests that serotonin needs light and sunlight to be at an optimal level. So, serotonin levels tend to be lower in the Winter months and more optimal and ideal in the summer months. Next is taking in more probiotics, such as yogurt, into your daily diet. Research suggests that getting more probiotics may aid in more tryptophan entering the brain. Note, please consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplements that affect your hormones. Lastly, do things that you love and enjoy that will boost your mood. Try things such as thinking about a happy moment or experience, looking back at old photos that make you happy, call your favorite person, go to your happy place, etc. Bottom line here is you feel good, you eat good!