10 Reasons We Eat Emotionally and How To Overcome It

By Kate Barnes

Our first food
It begins as babies. When babies cry they are overtired, hungry or uncomfortable, commonly they are hungry and nursed to quickly give them comfort and satiate them.

I remember when our children were babies and toddlers giving them rusks, steamed fruit or vegetables just to quieten them… They weren’t necessarily hungry but it helped comfort them.

Food and the cry for food, initiates an intimate connection between babies and parents. Throughout the day they nestle in close to their parents receiving their undivided attention while instantly being nourished and comforted. Mothers’ milk is a sweet food, forming an early association with sweetness and comfort. It’s a simple act that not only strengthens the bond and relationship between parents and child but it nourishes and satiates children deeply.

As a child is there anything more calming and comforting? I don’t think so. It’s an emotional blueprint that stays with us for life.

An abundance of food
In addition to this innate connection with food and emotion, today food is very accessible. When we are feeling emotional or stressed, it’s easy to find something to satiate ourselves and usually with something sweet, rather than distract ourselves with another activity. Plus, it’s often easier and quicker (convenient) to reach for food, especially packaged food. Food that’s very difficult for our bodies to digest and neither nourishes or satiates us completely.  Making it easy to overeat.

Our primal brains evolved to ‘stock up’ when food is in abundance, understanding that there would be seasons in the year when food would be scarce, e.g. through the winter months. Our primal brains still work in this way. They are wired for this response, however there is a constant abundance of food.

The reward
Then there is the reward that we learn to associate with food when something upsetting, stressful or ‘bad’ happens. We’ve all done it. It starts when we’re young. When my daughter was about 6 years old, she fell over and grazed her knee quite severely. I distinctly remember taking her off to the biscuit shop to help take her mind off it and to make her feel better (with food)! Of course whenever she hurt herself after that she expected a sweet treat (thankfully a kiss and a cuddle or a bandaid does the trick now).

Just like when we were babies, when we are older and experience a stressful or negative situation, or we’ve had a hard day or a long week or we’re just feeling a bit down, emotional eating is an automatic response to suppress emotions, comfort or reward ourselves. However this response can lead to dis-ease in our body. It doesn’t allow us to sit with the feeling or the emotion and truly understand WHY we have the feeling and where it’s coming from.

Socialisation and connection
Traditionally, right throughout history food has had the power to gather together friends, families and communities to celebrate, socialise, connect with each other and have fun. It is the most important ingredient to help fulfill some of our most basic human needs. Yet more than ever we are finding there’s less time to gather in this way. So again, for just a moment, indulging in a pleasurable food may help statiate our basic human need – connection.

…food has had the power to gather together friends, families and communities to celebrate, socialise, connect with each other and have fun.

Being dissatisfied in a relationship or having an inappropriate exercise routine (too much, too little or the wrong type), being bored, stressed, uninspired by a job, or lacking a spiritual practice can all cause emotional eating. Eating can momentarily fill the void of other areas that are lacking in our lives.

The seasons
Often the body craves foods that balance the elements of the season. In the spring, people crave detoxifying foods like leafy greens or citrus  foods. In the summer, people crave cooling foods like fruit, raw foods and ice cream, and during winter, many crave hot and heat-producing foods like meat, oil and fat.

Lack of nutrients
If the body has an imbalance of nutrients, it can lead to cravings and we may find it harder to manage stressful situations or respond to the situation more negatively.

When women experience menstruation, pregnancy or menopause, fluctuating testosterone and estrogen levels may cause unique cravings and forms of emotional eating.

A lack of water can send the message that we are thirsty. Dehydration can manifest as a mild hunger, so one of the first things to do when we get a craving is drink a full glass of water. Excess water can also cause cravings, so be sure that your water intake is well   balanced.

Not enough sleep creates tiredness and low energy which can spark the urge to overeat so that flagging energy levels are lifted and the need for reward or comfort is given.

See next page for ways to prevent emotional eating…

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