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Being an Emotional Eater May be Good for Your Mental Health

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Eating when you feel down, stressed, underappreciated, overwhelmed, frustrated, or anxious is so common that it is often the basis of advertisements. Every so often, we see, in a TV ad, a lovely looking, normal-weight woman who falls into a comfortable chair, sighs deeply, and then slowly unwraps a luscious looking chocolate. “This is for me,” she says biting into the confection. “This is my time to relax and I deserve this treat.”

Is she an emotional eater? I doubt that the advertisers want you to think that, since being an emotional eater has such negative connotations. But of course that is exactly what she is. We are meant to believe that she has spent most of the day dealing with problems and meeting the needs of others. Now, finally, she is letting the stress of the day melt away as the chocolate melts on her tongue. Her rapturous smile and relaxed posture after she takes that first bite come supposedly from the delight her taste buds are experiencing.

Now picture this alternate scenario advertising a piece of chocolate. The woman is frazzled, her hair a mess, and there is a run in her panty hose. Meanwhile, a child is whining in a corner, the dog is scratching to go outside, and her cell phone is ringing. She grabs the same box of chocolates and frantically tears off the wrapper of a piece. Popping the candy in her mouth, she sighs. “Boy did I need that,” she says.

Both scenarios show the same thing, which is a person using food to make herself feel better. The only real difference is that woman number one seems to be in control of her eating and we know that she will stop after one chocolate. Woman number two we are not so sure of; we suspect she might eat the entire box. If we could ask the first woman whether she considers herself an emotional eater, she would arch her lovely eyebrows and look shocked. “Of course not,” she would answer. “I just wanted to treat myself after a long day.” If we asked the second woman the same question, she would say, “Of course, I am so ashamed but what can I do? When I feel overwhelmed, I look for something sweet to stuff into my mouth.”

Both women are emotional eaters. The only difference is the context in which they do the eating. In the advertisement, the woman is already relaxing, leaving the daily stress behind her as she reaches for her chocolate indulgence. The woman in my scenario regards the candy as something that will get her through the next fifteen minutes of potential catastrophes. She can’t leave the stress behind her; she is in the middle of it. But she wants to be able to cope, to become calm enough to figure out in what order to attend to the dog, the whining child, and the cell phone.

Years ago, we discovered that many people use carbohydrate foods as “edible tranquilizers.” The discovery was made accidentally when volunteers in one of our studies on eating behavior told us that they had to eat a sweet or starchy carbohydrate when their moods were low or they felt anxious, irritable, or restless. After eating crackers or pretzels or gumdrops, they felt better within fifteen to twenty minutes. Turning their anecdotes into science took some time, but eventually we found that the brain produced serotonin, a calming chemical, after carbohydrates were eaten. Serotonin soothed away stress, increased energy, improved concentration and focus, and dampened anger. Carbohydrates were the only food that did this because non-fruit carbohydrates stimulated the production of serotonin. Proteins had no effect because protein foods prevented serotonin from being made.

Emotional eating is not only provoked by the stresses encountered from work, family, social life, community concerns, and after reading the newspaper. Winter darkness propels people toward pasta dinners. Women with premenstrual syndrome or PMS have walked through blizzards to get chocolate. People going through smoking withdrawal use candy not only to occupy their mouth, but also to take away the restlessness and inability to concentrate caused by lack of nicotine.

And it works. Carbohydrates are called comfort foods because they make our emotional state more manageable. So what’s wrong with emotional eating? Nothing. Eating carbohydrates to make more serotonin is nature’s way of helping us cope with the stresses of daily life.

And if the eating to quiet emotional turmoil is done correctly, it will never turn into overeating. Only small amounts of a starchy food, like a potato or sweet food such as jelly beans are necessary to start the process of making serotonin. The key is to get the body to release insulin after you eat the carbohydrate. The insulin allows an amino acid, tryptophan, to get into the brain. Once there, the brain converts it to serotonin, which blunts the effect of stress on our emotional state, thereby making it possible to cope and concentrate. And as a value-added feature, serotonin also shuts off the need to eat.

Why then do people overeat out of emotional need? The answer is that they choose the wrong foods, eat more than the correct dose needed to make serotonin, and eat them at the wrong time.

High-fat foods are the wrong foods for two reasons:

1.      They add unnecessary calories

2.      They delay digestion

Chocolate, for example, may taste better than a fat-free rice cake but it does contain, per bite, more calories because it is high in fat. And because it takes longer to bring about relief due to delayed digestion, the stressed eater, like the mom in the second anecdote, may continue eating until she feels better.

Carbohydrates that contain more than tiny amounts of protein prevent the brain from making serotonin.

The prescription for emotional eating is this:

Eat about 25 to 30 grams of a sweet or starchy carbohydrate (not fruit, which doesn’t allow the brain to make serotonin).

For best results, eat the carbohydrate a couple of hours after your last meal.

Wait. Do not continue eating. If you had a headache, you would wait after taking a pain-reliever. Do the same with this emotional pain reliever.

You will feel better in about twenty minutes.

Do not feel guilty. You are doing exactly what Mother Nature wants you to do when you are stressed.

Finally, enjoy your good mood.


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