Mood and Food – Emotional Eating and How To Help?

Emotional eating defined- or rather, re-defined

On days when everything feels gloomy and depressing, munching on that piece of cake or ploughing through that pack of crisps really does feel like there is still hope in this world. Emotional eating – the act of eating (or, in some cases, binging), is the ‘coping mechanism’ many people use when experiencing negative emotions.

Although it is natural to think that the negative emotions per se leads to emotional eating behaviours, scientific evidence suggests the otherwise. It is the lack of emotional awareness(1) or suppression of emotions(2) that contribute to emotional eating. Therefore, the acknowledgement of emotions and how they are acknowledged are more important than the experience of negative emotions itself when it comes to emotional eating.

The health impacts of emotional eating

Emotional eating is a topic worth exploring because it has both physical and mental health implications. A wide range of research has demonstrated that emotional eating contributes to weight gain, hinders weight loss, and diminishes weight loss maintenance(3). In fact, in multiple populations, emotional eating behaviours may be a mediating factor bridging depression and obesity, potential consequences of extreme weight gain(4).

To many people, weight gain is a source of negative emotions including depression, anxiety, and shame. If these negative emotions are not acknowledged properly, it may result in emotional eating, potentially leading to more weight gain and another wave of negative emotions. This type of vicious cycle is health-damaging. To break this cycle, the first step is to understand why might negative emotions lead to emotional eating behaviours.

Why might negative emotions lead to emotional eating behaviours?

There are two main theories in the scientific field:

  1. Eating as an emotional regulation strategy:

To avoid the psychological pain that comes with negative emotions, some people use binge-eating as a form of distraction(5). The act of eating may also introduce the sensation of positive emotions in some people(2), thus reducing the intensity of negative emotions experienced by them.

  1. Disinhibition among restraint eaters:

For various reasons, some people may restrain from eating (the most common reason being dieting). Restraining from eating requires a lot of mental discipline- so does distracting oneself from the negative emotions. In the midst of such emotions, most mental energy might go down the ‘emotions distraction route’ rather than the ‘refrain from eating route’ (a psychological phenomenon known as ‘disinhibition’). Consequently, restraint eaters can no longer restrain, so they lash out and binge eat. In fact, evidence indicates that compared to emotional eating, restraint eating as a behaviour more strongly predicts snack consumption(6), suggesting that restraint eaters as a group may be at a particularly high risk of increasing food intake when experiencing negative emotions. This would not be a problem if the foods that are being binged on are ‘healthy’. But the reality is far from it- and why is so?

 

Does it matter what kind of negative emotions are experienced?

Interestingly, research shows that the trend in emotional eating may differ between specific negative emotions: among obese individuals, a relationship between anxiety tendency and increased food intake was reported. However, such a relationship was not found for anger tendencies(8). This discrepancy suggests that the type of negative emotions may alter emotional eating behaviours. The same study also found that among non-obese individuals, neither tendencies were related to increasing food intake. This highlights the importance of healthy emotional regulation strategies in reducing emotional eating and developing weight-related health issues in the long-run.

So, what can be done to manage emotional eating behaviours?

Here are 3 practical tips that you could start implementing today to help ease the need for emotional eating when you feel it coming:

Mindfulness meditation: various published studies have shown that mindfulness practices are effective in managing emotional eating behaviours(9). Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that can be used to increase body and emotional awareness, bringing out subconscious emotions which can then be released and processed. When the negative emotions are released, there is less of a need to (binge) eat as a form of distraction from these emotions.

Action points:

Before sleeping and/or first thing after waking up: spend 5-10 minutes doing nothing and just ‘be’. Observe your inner mental and emotional state. The key point is to not restraint from any thoughts or feelings that arise – let them flow through and leave you. If you find it hard to just ‘be’, I recommend you focus on your breathing patterns – take deep breaths in slowly for a few seconds, hold for a few seconds, then slowly breath out for a few seconds.

Devise an ‘if-then’ implementation plan(10): in moments when you feel calm, decide what to do ‘if’ you feel the negative emotions coming up and you want to reach for that comfort food. Planning ahead will give you the confidence to cope with negative emotions without having to (binge) eat.

Example:

If you feel like binge eating again next time when you feel stressed, then you go read your favorite book or listen to and sing out loud your favorite playlist.

Reward yourself for having successfully managed emotional eating: if you have dealt with negative emotions without having to reach for the ‘comfort foods’, then reward yourself with something you like to do or something physical you have always wanted. Avoid using food or beverage as a reward because that may reinforce the idea of ‘eating upon emotional feelings’.

References:

  1. Moon A, Berenbaum H. Emotional awareness and emotional eating. Cognition and emotion. 2009 Apr 1;23(3):417-29.
  2. Evers C, Marijn Stok F, de Ridder DT. Feeding your feelings: Emotion regulation strategies and emotional eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2010 Jun;36(6):792-804.
  3. Frayn M, Knäuper B. Emotional eating and weight in adults: a review. Current Psychology. 2018 Dec 1;37(4):924-33.
  4. Van Strien T. Causes of emotional eating and matched treatment of obesity. Current diabetes reports. 2018 Jun 1;18(6):35.
  5. Tice DM, Bratslavsky E. Giving in to feel good: The place of emotion regulation in the context of general self-control. Psychological inquiry. 2000 Jul 1;11(3):149-59.
  6. Adriaanse MA, de Ridder DT, Evers C. Emotional eating: Eating when emotional or emotional about eating? Psychology and Health. 2011 Jan 1;26(1):23-39.
  7. Macht M, Mueller J. Increased negative emotional responses in PROP supertasters. Physiology & behavior. 2007 Feb 28;90(2-3):466-72.
  8. Schneider KL, Appelhans BM, Whited MC, Oleski J, Pagoto SL. Trait anxiety, but not trait anger, predisposes obese individuals to emotional eating. Appetite. 2010 Dec 1;55(3):701-6.
  9. Katterman SN, Kleinman BM, Hood MM, Nackers LM, Corsica JA. Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eating behaviors. 2014 Apr 1;15(2):197-204.
  10. Mischel W. ‘The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control and How to Master It. 1st Great Britain: Bantam Press; 2014. Chapter 5: The Best Laid Plans; p. 61-70.
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Steffi Loh, Nutritionist 

Steffi is a nutritionist with experience in functional medicine, academic nutrition research, community nutrition, and health promotion. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition for Global Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a Bachelor’s degree in Human Nutrition from King’s College London. Steffi aims to empower individuals with motivation and awareness so that they can improve their sense of well-being and live at their healthiest. She is currently using a personalised health approach to assist individuals achieve optimal health.

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