Do you remember the last time you were feeling very tired or emotionally low and longed for a bowl of steaming hot khichdi? Or the time you were so bored and wanted to eat a cheesy pizza or greasy potato chips? Have you ever wanted to have something sweet to celebrate a good grade or a business deal? Or craved pakodas and ginger tea in the rains?
Why is eating so deeply connected with our emotional states?
Food is a central part of our lives. As newborns, when we are fed by our mothers, food is as much about sustenance and nourishment as it is about warmth, love, and connection. Gradually, as we grow up, food meets more needs: when we eat with family or friends, we are forming strong connections with them; when we indulge in a dish, it gives us sensual pleasures; when we eat with friends and family during special occasions, food becomes a means of celebration.
Sometimes, though, when we are anxious, bored, sad, or feeling low, we may eat to distract ourselves from the emotions we’re experiencing. Certain foods help us cope with the stress or emotions, while not being the most effective way of coping in the long run. Sometimes, certain emotions may also lead to a reduction in food intake. If you’ve skipped a meal because you’re anxious about an interview or an examination, you have probably experienced this.
“Each person has different ways in which they cope with moods and emotions,” says clinical psychologist Bona Colaco. “When we are angry, sad or anxious, we try different things to help us feel better. Food is one of the things that can make us feel good instantly.” Some foods (sugars, for instance) activate the reward system in our brains by releasing dopamine. This makes us feel good when we eat – particularly foods that contain a lot of sugar. So sometimes, when we feel sad, upset or bored, we may eat something to feel better.
Research has shown that emotions such as stress, worry and anxiety are the ones that are most often linked to emotional eating.
But is this harmful?
Some experts use the term ‘emotional eating’ to refer to this behavior of eating to cope with emotions, particularly those we see as ‘negative’. Because the food activates our reward system to make us feel better, we may end up eating every time we experience stress or anxiety. While we focus on feeling better, we may be doing little to address the actual emotional state that is leading to this behavior. When we eat in such a situation, we are trying to fix only the immediate problem (the uncomfortable emotion) and not the actual cause.
Emotional eating can also, over the long term, lead to physical health problems, particularly when we eat foods that are sugary or unhealthy in nature. The immediate impact could be the lethargy and sluggishness that follows a sugar high.
Some people also turn to food for comfort after a significant loss in life: the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship. In such a situation, it is recommended that they seek help from a grief counselor who will help them deal with their loss.
But how can I know if I’m eating because I’m hungry, or because I feel emotional?
Colaco says that the key is in paying attention to what’s happening in the body. “We can become aware of the sensations that arise when we are hungry. Metabolical processes and gastric contractions give rise to hunger signals. When we eat, these signals are inhibited and we feel satiated or full. Becoming aware of these sensations, we are able to realize when we eat to address our physical hunger, and when we are trying to ‘feel good'."
If you think you’re reaching for food when you’re stressed, and want to break the pattern, get in touch with a mental health professional. They will be able to explore emotions and conflicts, and help you identify better ways of coping with them.
You could also begin to develop your own coping methods:
Physically: Make sure you eat nutritious food and at regular mealtimes. Get enough sleep, engage in regular exercise or physical activity. Regular exercise produces endorphins in the brain for a feel-good effect and can help weaken your dependence on food.
Emotionally: Try to identify the stressors that make you reach out for food, and monitor yourself. Practice meditation or mindfulness, seek support from friends and family, or participate in activities you enjoy (painting, journaling, or music).
This article has been written with inputs from Dr. Paulomi Sudhir, additional professor, department of clinical psychology, NIMHANS; and Bona Colaco, licensed clinical psychologist.