Hopefully last week’s post was able to shed some light on under- and over-eating issues that many of you have on a daily basis. My goal was for you to see how your daily dietary decisions impact your daily emotions. This week though, I am going to touch on the emotional eating that is more obvious to you.
As discussed last week, an increase in blood sugar also results in an increase of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Many other things release dopamine too, though. Exercise is one, for example. That’s why exercise can be so great for stress management (my number one reason to move)! Holidays, personal achievements, time spent with family and friends, and positive experiences all release feel-good hormones, too. This is where we really confuse our bodies and minds though. If you think back to childhood (or maybe even this past weekend), positive experiences often involve food and usually not those foods that super nutrient rich. Holidays are known as times to indulge… and often over-indulge. I am sure many of you also celebrate achievements, whether work or life related, with food and drinks too. Again, during those celebrations, it is not usually nutrient-dense foods that we have around. This is okay, so long as we are truly enjoying the taste of these treats with recognition of when we are full and should stop, and so long as we still feel good later on. Unfortunately, that is not how most people engage in these experiences. Even worse than expecting over-indulgence with social functions and holidays, many of you may have grown up with food as a reward for your accomplishments! It could be a reward for a good report card, for success in a sport, for helping with chores and – how crazy is this – a reward for eating healthy. What? Now, in the social world we live in, we celebrate everything! Two weekends ago we paid off my husbands grad-school loans and my first thought was “champagne!” – I am not telling you never to celebrate with food or drinks but, do start to pay attention to the frequency and your actual enjoyment of those things in the moment…
Now, as adults, we see these life experiences not only as excuses to eat excessive amounts of “junk food” but, even worse, are often ignorant to the fact that we are eating foods we may not even enjoy that much. How many of you have eaten a piece of cake or had a drink just because it was there at a party? It may have never occurred to you that you didn’t need to have it since you didn’t really enjoy it. Maybe you weren’t paying attention when you were eating it but, because you were laughing with your cousin or catching up with an old friend, you were releasing feel-good hormones when eating that piece of cake so now your body is associating it with happiness rather than just your positive experience with those people. The same thing can happen with savory foods too, not just sweets. Think back to your childhood. Is there a meal that you love now, such as mac and cheese, or a heavy family recipe? Is it possible that you only love it as much as you do because your grandmother would always make it for you or that you usually enjoyed it at big family dinners? Thinking about those times makes you happy and that food just happened to be there when you were having fun or feeling loved.
If you aren’t yet seeing how this connects to emotional eating, think about the foods you might reach for when you are stressed, depressed, anxious, sad, or any other unhappy emotion. There is a good chance that food is connected to a positive experience you’ve have and in your time of stress or sadness, your mind is taken back to that experience. It can’t recreate the experience for you but, what it can do is bring back a smell or a taste. And now when you’re sad, fettuccine alfredo is your go-to. It may not taste as good as when Grandma made it but in the moment, the processed carbohydrates that raise your blood sugar paired with the thoughts of your childhood release a surge of dopamine and serotonin that makes you feel, for a few minutes, a little bit of comfort. The problem is, as I mentioned last week, that comfort is short-lived and soon your blood sugar is on the floor asking for more food as you feel even more stressed, depressed or anxious.
How can we deal with all of this? Well I have a few tips:
- Try to connect the foods you eat emotionally to other experiences they were present during. Next time you are feeling unhappy or stressed, look at a picture from that happy experience or to make you feel good instead of going out for ice cream. If you’re stressed a lot, keep those pictures where you’ll see them often! Save the ice cream for when you can really enjoy a small portion of it and not use it as a coping tool.
- Eat more mindfully. If you pay attention to the true enjoyment a food gives you, you’ll realize what you actually need and want to be eating and what you don’t. I am a huge foodie. I don’t continue with bites of foods that I don’t find delicious and, if I am upset or stressed, food never tastes all that good anyway. I already have a blog post on eating more mindfully with a great psychologist as a resource.
- Find more nutrient dense alternatives for your comfort foods so that you can enjoy them without the negative blood sugar and hormone responses! Luckily there are plenty of dietitians doing what I do and creating these recipes for you. Head over to my Pinterest Page or the Nutrition Blog Network.
- Don’t reward your kids with food. Will this help you? Not directly (unless you tend to get some of that reward when they do). It will help you have piece of mind that you aided in your child having a better relationship with food than you may. I was told growing up by my grandmother to be a member of the clean-the-plate-club. God bless her, I loved her to death but it still haunts me as I must carefully select smaller plates to eat from in every situation I am in!
I hope everyone has a little bit of a better understanding of why they may crave certain foods and a couple of tips on how to manage those cravings too! If you need more personalized help (and most people do) search here to meet with an RD near you!