Emotions are amazing and part of what make us human. We can laugh, cry, yearn, scream, or feel all warm and fuzzy at times. Emotions help to give us personality and charisma. But there can be a dark side to emotions; a side that makes us feel out of control in our lives. This dark side seems to make our choices for us even before we are completely aware of what’s happening.
This is especially true for emotional eaters. Do you find that you automatically grab a certain food at the same time each day? When you are sad or bored, do you look for answers in the cabinets or the refrigerator? Has ice cream become your best friend after a long, stressful day? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone… not even close. The mom in the car in front of you is eating cookies as she drives. The co-worker next to you has M&M’s in her drawer. The truth is we all eat for emotional comfort at times.
The problem exists, however, when we always turn to food for comfort, causing us to eat more calories than we need, often with little nutritional value. The problem deepens, then, with how we feel about ourselves after eating these foods. We often feel like a failure. As if we did not live up to some expectation of ourselves – an expectation that we likely haven’t even identified.
This then creates a vicious circle, and we turn to food to comfort our feelings of inadequacy. This is the problem. We eat. We don’t want to eat. We want to eat. We feel ashamed for eating. We eat again. We look in the mirror and ask, “Why can’t I stop? What is wrong with me?”
Does this sound like you? Maybe it’s not so bad. You are aware that you eat emotionally, but you’re still feeling pretty healthy. You just want to be and do better.
But maybe it is bad. You are gaining weight. You are feeling depressed and trying to hide from the world, from yourself.
There are three primary reasons that we turn to food.
1) It’s a learned behavior;
2) It’s a reward;
3) It soothes our hormones, or more accurately, chemicals in our bodies.
We learn how to soothe our emotions at a young age by watching family and friends. Sometimes it’s our family trying to be helpful, “don’t cry. Here, have a cookie. Isn’t that better?” Sometimes it’s simply watching mom eat a candy bar for dinner. Research shows that much of what we learn is adopted by age seven – seven! However, even though it is adopted, it does not have to be permanent.
Food becomes a reward and communicates with our brain’s chemicals primarily through the neurotransmitter, Dopamine. This is the “I got it!” chemical that makes you feel good for finding and completing a task. Dopamine is released when we finish a project, reach the top of a mountain, or eat the ice cream. It makes us feel better, even great….temporarily.
All three of these reasons connect to one theme: coping and soothing. Sometimes life is just plain hard. Food gives refuge and does not judge you. Eating gives a temporary feeling of control. Food can, and does, provide comfort but that comfort is temporary. Food does not change current situations or your reactions. Food does not fix.
I was reminded of this fact shifting between my emotional highs and lows this past month. Instead of reaching for chocolate or chips…or chocolate chips (my usually coping foods), I paused, took a deep breath and asked my body what it really needed. Usually, it was a walk or a bit of solitude, or water! You can have a loving relationship with food even in the hardest of times. And when your food relationship is positive, life looks brighter!
Regardless of your level of emotional eating, there are simple solutions. Find them in my book: Food, Feelings and Freedom: The End to Emotional Eating.