December 9, 2016

What is our emotional connection with food, where does it come from and why is it so powerful?

Our emotional connection with food derives from brain chemistry. Many people believe dieting and weight loss is behavioural or even comes down to hunger. That’s only part of it. What drives the behaviour, whether it be binge eating or reaching for sweets, is our emotional state that is driven by lack of essential neurotransmitters such as serotonin and endorphins.

Emotional eating is very common. You would be surprised to know how many people struggle with using food as a means to relieve stress, anxiety, depression or just everyday pressures. Unfortunately, it’s a trap for well-meaning dieters who suddenly cut high carbohydrate and sugary foods, but then later ‘cheat’ because the cravings are too powerful. They feel better for a while, because carbohydrates are necessary to synthesise amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is necessary for us to feel full and melatonin helps us feel relaxed. In a binge eating situation, we are consumed with guilt that isn’t helpful for self-esteem and confidence. And so the cycle continues, which we all know as yo-yo dieting.

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Judith J Wurtman, PhD and Nina T Frusztajer, MD have conducted studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the connection between emotional eating and brain chemistry. In their book “The Serotonin Power Diet”, they give extensive clinical evidence for better weight loss outcomes for those who incorporate carbohydrates into their diet.

What are our typical emotional food triggers?

Stress is usually the number one trigger, as well as a general sense of feeling overwhelmed. Today’s fast-pace lifestyle coupled with greater family, social and financial pressures can be enough to set anyone off.

Uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, anger or disappointment can be difficult to cope with, especially if we don’t like to open up and talk about it. So, we often sit alone, in front of the TV and eat pizza and ice cream as a means to numb the pain and just make life a little bit more bearable for another night.

What are typical foods we emotionally reach for and why?

Typically, when you’ve come home from a long day at work, you reach for carby or sweet foods to relieve the tension. We attribute this to lack of willpower, wrong behaviour or bad habits. It has very little to do with that.

At the end of the day, you’re tired and the sun’s going down so your brain is depleted of serotonin. That’s why many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is low serotonin during winter months due to decreased exposure to light.

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Whilst drugs and alcohol are still a major social and health concern, today’s drug of choice that is most widely used is sugar and carbohydrates. They are both addictive and very difficult to resist. But, they are both also OK in moderation, as having a balanced diet is the key.

What strategies can readers use to combat harmful emotional eating?

First, realise that as human beings we’re going to experience many different emotions. Some positive, some negative – it’s just a part of life. There are alternative ways to address those depending on the severity of symptoms.

Major mood disorders require medication and therapy, in consultation with a specialised health practitioner. Stress and tension can be relieved through exercise, which naturally releases endorphins, our ‘feel good’ chemicals. Mindfulness is also a technique that’s made its way into Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which, simply put, means observing your feelings, thoughts and emotions with no judgement whilst living in the present moment.

A book released by Dr Julia Ross, MD called The Mood Cure also details strategies using amino acid therapy and supplementation to restore correct brain chemistry levels, as well as blood sugar, thyroid and inner gut healing. One of the findings in her studies has been the use of amino acid supplement L-Glutamine, which is used for muscle repair but also stops sugar cravings.

There’s usually a big picture involved when it comes to emotional eating. ‘Just stopping’ or going on a diet is often not enough, because there’s an entire chemical imbalance happening in the body. It’s always worth getting to a GP to get a blood test and check for any deficiencies and core issues from a chemical perspective. Socialising is always helpful too – getting around positive people reuglarly whom you can be honest with will give you a better chance of overcoming emotional eating.

Do you have any tips to combat emotional eating? Let us know in the comments.

Image source: Pexels.


  • Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Some very good advice here.

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  • I will do something else like read.

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  • I do know that if I go to bed earlier, then I don’t eat late at night! My binge eating is usually, in my mind, reward for getting through the day. My son has ASD and he can exhaust me. My evening peppermint tea is a catalyst for having something with it – licorice or something similar. And if I stay up later, then I feel the need for something, anything. I’m trying not to have things in the house to eat late at night to avoid it.

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  • I try to go to bed and read a book. If I sit in the lounge or anywhere else I look for food. It’s taboo to eat in bed in our home.

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  • So me, yet i don’t think i stress as much…more boredom and idle movement more than anything. Good to be reminded of the things what-to do and not-to do and to actually try them out. Now i’ve got to clean out my pantry.

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  • Find distraction or something constructive to do and when feeling emotional go find a listening ear.

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  • Mmm, wish I had this cake when feeling emotional!

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  • Emotional eating is when you feel like absolute crap and reach for a huge slab of chocolate cake to feel better. And it works! To avoid it, I go for a long walk with my dogs

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  • Drink some mint tea and go for a walk. Have plenty of water.

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  • Set up the environment including the pantry to combat the possibility of emotional over eating.

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  • If most of us were honest, I reckon we all emotionally eat from time to time, the key is moderation

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  • I know if I have had a crap day, kids are feral etc, I would love to sit in a cafe alone and have a slice of cake with a tea. I think the sugar and indulgence is just something to get me through the day.

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  • I know I emotionally eat quite a bit. Everyday stresses seem to take over

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  • Just have beautiful pure and healthy foods in your cupboard and there has to be no guilt.
    Some will eat, some will grab a wine, others will light a sigaret…

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