Taking Charge of Emotional Eating (It’s Not Just About Willpower)

Picture this: You’re standing in your kitchen after a lousy day at work. Your boss gave you an assignment that really should have gone to your coworker. Worse yet, the report is due tomorrow, and you don’t have all the information you need to complete it. Your mind is churning with thoughts like “What a jerk! It’s not fair. How am I supposed to do this?”

You open the freezer and pull out a carton of chocolate ice cream. You reach for a spoon. The first bite is amazing. Bliss! You stare out the kitchen window and take another bite. But before you know it, your spoon is scraping the bottom of the carton, and you’re feeling guilty.

When the going gets tough, you may find yourself turning to food to feel better. We’ve all found ourselves engaging in emotional eating –using food to soothe ourselves. Eating can be a way to manage stress or dampen uncomfortable feelings (like loneliness, anxiety, anger, or sadness). Food can even be a way to turn up the volume on pleasant emotions like happiness or comfort.

In the short term, it works pretty well. Your mind latches on to the idea that a certain food will make you feel better, you eat the food, and you feel soothed or relieved. Your brain learns that you can get a quick fix. But, as you’ve probably noticed, the relief doesn’t last. You still feel stressed out about work, and now you have a second problem:you feel bad about yourself for eating all that ice cream.

Just about everyone succumbs to emotional eating now and then. But when it happens often, it can create real problems in your life. If you overeat regularly, you end up judging yourself harshly, figuring that you’re weak or lack willpower.

People sometimes talk about food as a way to satisfy emotional hunger, as if a gnawing feeling of sadness is a void that we can fill with cookies or chips or chicken or any food. And in a sense,that is true. But emotional eating isn't just about filling some metaphorical emptiness inside. It's driven by a survival instinct deep in the human brain.

When we eat tasty food, we get a hit of dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure. Anything that feels good – getting a sweet text message from a special someone, enjoying a glass of wine, or having sex – triggers this same reward mechanism in the brain.

Generally speaking, the brain’s hardwiring works in favor of the human species, motivating us to repeat activities that are life sustaining by connecting them to feelings of pleasure or reward. This explains why we have strong instinctive cravings for food and sex: they’re essential to survival.

But when you use food to comfort yourself or to numb emotional pain on a regular basis, this behavior can lock into the same reward-equals-survival dynamic that drives us toward life-sustaining activities like sex. The brain thinks If it feels good, it must be important to my survival, so I had better keep doing it. The result is that you may binge on foods you find comforting.

Researcher Kenneth Blum[1] suggests that some people who struggle with overeating may have what he calls reward deficiency syndrome. RDS involves a failure in the brain’s dopamine reward system. People with RDS have fewer dopamine receptors and therefore do not feel the full effect of dopamine in the brain. If you have RDS, you don’t get the same level of gratification that someone with a normal number of receptors does. You may eat too much in an unconscious attempt to boost your brain levels of dopamine and feel a sense of pleasure.  

Whether or not you have RDS, your brain can make you feel as if you must eat that carton of ice cream – or else. Clearly, overeating isn’t as simple as a lack of self-control, and kicking the habit of soothing yourself with food isn’t just a matter of willpower.

Understanding the connection between emotions and overeating opens up a whole world of new possibilities. You can learn to deal with feelings in a way that doesn’t involve food. Here’s how:

Identify your emotions.The first step is to put a name to what you’re feeling. After that terrible day at work, you might be feeling angry. More specifically, you’re feeling resentment (because your coworker should have gotten the assignment, not you)and frustration (because you don’t have the data you’ll need to finish the report). Your body will give you clues to your emotions.

Accept your feelings.Don’t fight your emotions. Just let them be. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to feel angry. Anyone would, under these circumstances.”

Express yourself.Identifying your feelings is a way to express them to yourself. It can also be helpful to talk over your feelings with a supportive friend. If you feel your boss has treated you disrespectfully, you may choose to speak up for yourself.

Choose how you’ll soothe yourself. The part of your brain that associates food with survival is rather primitive. Luckily, there are other parts of the brain – notably the prefrontal cortex – that are capable of taking a broader, more rational perspective. With practice, you can notice that you’re about to overeat for emotional reasons.Then you can use your “higher brain” to decide that you’ll soothe your emotions by calling a friend, going for a walk, or taking a hot bath instead.

So the next time you find yourself eating an entire bag of potato chips after an argument with your spouse, be gentle with yourself. It’s easier to forgive yourself when you see emotional eating as a matter of brain chemistry and not personal weakness. It’s important not to judge yourself for emotional eating behaviors. When you do this, it causes more emotions to be generated and you may find yourself caught in a vicious cycle of feeling bad, then self-soothing with food, then feeling guilty about overeating, which may lead to more overeating. Thinking of it in terms of the“eating-reward-more eating” loop can help you move away from self-blame and give you the power to make a different choice.

[1] BlumK, Chen ALC, Oscar-Berman M, et al. Generational association studies ofdopamine reward deficiency syndrome (RDS) subjects: selecting appropriatephenotypes for reward dependence behaviors. Int J. Environ. Res. Public Health2011;8:4425-4459.


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