Emotionally Starved Eating

Oh, how I love love love sugar.

Whether it’s biting into that first piece of moist chocolate cake or nibbling on a crispy slice of pizza, we LOVE food. And unlike other animals, humans are the only ones who form an emotional connection to what they are eating.

The college kid who goes away to school for the first time and makes meatloaf because it reminds him of his mom’s cooking…

The jogger who downs an entire plate of fettuccine alfredo because she feels as though she has ‘earned it’…

The rainy day that makes us want to cuddle up with a cup of hot cocoa…

All of it feeds into the emotional relationship(s) we have with food. And while some of us are less attached than others to food; more often than not, this emotional back-and-forth with eating sometimes results in a cycle of depression, binge eating and eventually eating disorders.

When we eat in response to how we feel (i.e. happy, sad, depressed), we are more likely to eat the wrong kinds of food. Additionally, there is a higher probability that we’ll also be less apt to enjoy whatever it is we’re eating because we’re so preoccupied by what’s actually eating away at us inside. Therefore, in order to break the pattern of emotionally charged eating, we must first be able to identify the causes behind why we eat what we eat.

Identifying the connection between food versus your feelings

In a study conducted by Blissett, Haycraft and Farrow, twenty-five 3 to 5 year-olds along with their mothers were studied while they ate a meal to satiety in order to determine whether there was a correlation between a child’s emotional eating and parental feeding practices.

In the study, the children were assigned to a control or negative mood condition while their consumption of snack foods in the absence of hunger was measured. Results of the study demonstrated that in the group where the moms used food to regulate emotions, the children consumed more cookies even after they had already eaten a full meal. Conversely, this pattern was reversed for the children of those moms who did not use food for emotional regulation. Therefore, it was deduced that from an early age, a child can (and often does) learn to associate food with emotional behavior. [source]

Midlife stressors

You’ve had an absolutely awful day at work. Your boss reprimanded you, and a meeting with a client didn’t go quite as well as planned. What would make you feel better?

Answer: your favorite ice cream and maybe some Chinese takeout perhaps?

Before you find yourself in your next showdown with a refrigerator or with a takeout menu, you need to become more aware of your eating habits. Learn to recognize when you are truly hungry versus when you are bored, frustrated, anxious or depressed. Learn to look at food for its nutritional value first. Doing this is easier said than done though- as we would have already learned to associate emotional needs with food well before we’ve reached adulthood. That said, the following are some questions that you should ponder before you polish off whatever it is you’re staring at.

From the moment a parent first offers a biscuit or sweet to comfort and quiet a child, food becomes a way of nourishing the soul as well as the body. From the earliest age food is used to celebrate, calm, relieve boredom or depression and to comfort in times of sadness and emotional distress. [source]

Ask before you eat…

  • Am I thirsty? It is a fact that most of us do not drink enough water. Immediately following a workout, the first thing you should do before anything else is down a glass or two of water first. Introduce this idea before meals as well. You will find that you’ll not only eat less, but more often than not, you won’t feel as famished.
  • Am I bored? One of the top reasons that we eat poorly is because we have nothing better to do. Put the average American in close proximity to a fully stocked refrigerator and you’re bound to witness more than one unnecessary trip. This can be especially problematic for the growing number of people who work from home.
  • Am I tired? Sometimes, people tend to consume things like caffeinated beverages because they think that doing so will give them that extra ‘kick’ to help keep them awake. In fact, the number of eating problems that stem from sleep deprivation is superfluous. The later we stay up at night, the more likely the tendency to snack…especially on things that are unhealthy, etc.
  • Am I eating to be polite? When most of us meet up with friends or family, there is almost always food involved. However, how often are you going out to eat and consuming something just because you don’t want to appear rude?
  • Am I rushed? Most of us lead busy lifestyles that leave plenty of time for work, family, friends and extracurricular activities- but little room for planning healthy eating. The result? You’re starving; you’re rushed and you haven’t prepared anything…which leads you to start sniffing around for the nearest fast food restaurant
  • Am I surrounded by the right food? Most of what we eat and drink when we are in the comfort of our own homes is the result of whether or not we’ve decided to surround ourselves with healthy food choices. You cannot control what others purchase and put in their refrigerators, but you can control what you put in yours. If you find yourself snacking on a dozen chocolate chip cookies late at night, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself!

The science behind food and happiness

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the science of happiness has revealed evidence which suggests that food can actually make you happy. Conversely, a lack of certain kinds of foods (or ingredients contained within certain foods) can actually make you sad. The link? A fatty acid named docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. [source]

Found in the brain, DHA is the most abundant fat and is essential towards building up your brain’s structure. Past studies conducted by the NIH have uncovered a link between DHA deficiency and the increase of depression. So, what’s the skinny on all of this? It seems as though food most certainly does have an effect on our moods. And while we should strive to eat from mainly nutrient-dense food sources, the occasional binge on ice cream shouldn’t make us feel bad-quite the opposite in fact- it should make us feel good….as long as we don’t overdo it.

Rein in your emotions; Rein in your eating behavior

The following are some great tips to help you get a jumpstart on changing your emotional connection with food. Keep in mind that change doesn’t happen overnight, but is instead learned over time [source].

  • Keep a food journal, and write down your thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with your food choices.
  • When the urge to binge eat on something not-so-good-for-you hits, phone a friend, go for a jog, or divert your attention to a more healthful activity.
  • Chew your food SLOWLY, savoring each bite. Doing so will also serve your digestive system better!
  • Invest in smaller silverware by opting for smaller plates, forks, spoons, etc. this way you can still eat a full plate of food without feeling so horrible afterwards.
  • Buy a pedometer and/or record your physical activities each day, striving for at least 10,000 steps daily.
  • Don’t deprive yourself of the food you truly love. Just don’t overdo it. If you want to celebrate an occasion with a piece of cake, take a few small bites first and then ask yourself whether it is worth it to continue finishing off the whole pie. Think with your head, not your stomach!

Appetite, a universal wolf. – William Shakespeare


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