You Can Stop Emotional Eating When You Know How It Starts

Emotional eating is more than a catchphrase. It is a behavior and a condition that affects some 40% of Americans – or about 350 million people. To gain some perspective on emotional eating, we spoke with Nzinga Harrison, MD, who specializes in general psychiatry and addiction medicine.
emotional eating

What Is Emotional Eating?

Dr. Harrison says that emotional eating is eating in response to stress or negative emotions. “People underappreciate that emotional eating can actually happen in times of positive emotions, but most people experience the consequences and that’s really the linchpin when they’re doing it in response to negative emotions,” she says.

Health Consequences of Emotional Eating

Dr. Harrison described three health consequences or emotional eating: physical, mental and social.

Physical – “Most often, emotional eating involves what we call palatable foods – they’re super delicious, are usually very high in sugar and cholesterol. When you have this overeating phenomenon, you can set yourself up for increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain and all the health consequences physically that come from that.”

Mental – “Emotional overeating is associated with increased risk for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even substance use disorders, as sometimes people try to control their overeating with stimulants or other drugs, even replacing it with alcohol when they’re trying to manage depressive anxiety symptoms that are co-existing.”

Social – “Very often, emotional overeating is associated with feelings of guilt and disgust that the eating can’t be controlled, and people isolate themselves socially, which creates this vicious cycle of increasing the overeating which increases the social isolation and those other physical and mental health consequences.”

Warning Signs of Emotional Eating

Knowing how emotional eating can wreak havoc in your life is one thing. It’s another to be able to recognize the warning signs in yourself or someone you love. Here Dr. Harrison highlights the major warning signs that should raise a red flag and potentially indicate a problem with emotional eating.

  1. Feelings of guilt and loss of control and disgust start to develop. “A lot of people will eat under stress but they won’t have a feeling of loss of control like they’re binging, and when they finish eating under stress, they might actually feel better,” says Dr. Harrison. “At the point where a person feels like they have to hide their eating, they feel disgusted at the amount that they eat, the loneliness and the sadness and guilt reinforces [those negative feelings] after they’ve finished overeating in response to stress. Then you start to think to yourself that this may be a problem.”
  2. Eating becomes a central part of your life. “This is when people have a lot of stress that’s constantly going on. They set up this pattern where they have stressors, stressors, stressors and they look forward to eating to feel better even though they know that eating makes them feel worse. When they start having that social isolation, eating only alone and really a lot of negative emotions associated with eating, that’s the second-level sign that this has turned into an issue that you want to address.”
  3. Other warning signs track along with the diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder. The criteria is rated on mild, moderate, severe and extreme based on the number of binge eating episodes that a person has per week:
  • 1-3 would be considered mild
  • 4-7 moderate
  • 8-13 severe
  • Over 14 extreme

“Once a person starts noticing that the number of times per week that they’re eating in response to stress is increasing, that’s a sign it’s maybe turning into its own problem,” Dr. Harrison says.

Tips To Prevent Emotional Eating

The good news is that emotional eating can be prevented. Here are some observations and a few tips that loved ones and family members can use.

Dr. Harrison first described the biological phenomenon that’s happening. You can divide your brain into two main parts: there’s the prefrontal cortex, where our decision-making and impulse control reside, and then there’s the deeper brain structures that are really automatic – that’s where our emotions and motivations are housed. “When you have a lot of stress, your limbic system – the deep part of your brain that’s responsible for how you feel – is constantly sending negative information forward to your prefrontal cortex to find a way to make us feel better,” Dr. Harrison says. “When you overeat palatable, high-sugar foods, you get a release of endorphins in your brain. They work on the same receptors as heroin. They give you a mood boost and a short reprieve from feeling really bad.”

Prevent emotional overeating by:

  • Managing your stressors. “The first way you stop your limbic system from constantly sending forward negative emotional information to your prefrontal cortex, and thereby driving more eating, is to manage your stressors. The lower a stress environment you can have, the more you can prevent overeating.”
  • Avoiding food restrictions. “On a biological level, what happens when people go on these repeated diets, ultra-low calorie meal plans, liquid diets, is that they set up a deprivation state in the brain. It’s essential that once you do food restrictions, the risk of food bingeing increases in the future. Avoid food restrictions if at all possible.”
  • Don’t keep large quantities of palatable foods around. Dr. Harrison says that this one is a little counterintuitive to people. “Intermittent access to these delicious foods alternating with restriction is the biggest way to ensure that you will emotionally overeat. What we recommend is not to keep large quantities of palatable foods around. Don’t buy a gallon of ice cream and put it in the freezer. Even though it saves you money, it increases your risk of binge eating or emotional eating. Buy the pint size. The counterintuitive part of that is to schedule this delicious food that you’re going to let yourself have a small quantity of on a regular basis. Then you interrupt that binge-restriction pattern that’s increasing the risk for developing overeating in the future. You train your brain that a little bit is coming. That regular pattern decreases the chance that you will binge in response to negative emotions in the future.”

Overcoming Emotional Eating

If you or someone you love is an emotional eater, overcoming it depends on the severity of the behavior, gauged by the number of times a week the behavior occurs and by the impact it is having on the person’s life.

“If the number of episodes is mild – less than three – and the impact is mild, you can try the things that we talked about,” says Dr. Harrison. “Try to get your stress down, avoiding food restrictions and scheduling in palatable foods at a small quantity and see if that works. If those don’t help, interventions don’t work, or you’re having four or more overeating episodes a week, or you’re really starting to experience persistent guilt, self-disgust, low self-esteem and depression and anxiety all wrapped around your eating, then you definitely want to seek help with a professional. At that point, treatment is the best option.”

Dr. Harrison also talked about her role as the psychiatrist for a campaign called, “Let’s Get Mentally Fit,” which is aimed at reducing the stigma around paying attention to mental fitness and elevating it to the same cool status that physical fitness enjoys. Click here for resources and  additional information about emotional eating.

By Suzanne Kane

Posted on January 13th, 2016

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