Ice cream after a breakup, salty snacks while watching your favorite Netflix series as a reward after a stressful day, chocolate while studying before a difficult exam? Although we have always associated food with emotions, and it evokes various emotions in us, the “misuse” of food as a response to happiness, sadness, anxiety, and a range of other emotions has become a common occurrence in modern life, which seems challenging to avoid.
The Vicious Cycle of Emotional Overeating
Although food is an essential part of our lives, and the occasional reward or comfort in a piece of chocolate is quite normal, such behavior often spirals out of control. The problem arises when food becomes the primary tool for dealing with emotions, meaning that the first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever we feel stress, agitation, anger, loneliness, exhaustion, or just plain boredom.
The vicious cycle begins with discomfort, leading to a craving for a particular type of food and an almost uncontrollable need to eat, which often results in the consumption of excessive amounts of high-calorie food. Choices typically include processed foods like chips, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, and fast food, which are rich in sugars, saturated fats, sodium, additives, and the like. After consuming such food, feelings of guilt often arise, leading to the reemergence of negative emotions, thus initiating the “cycle of emotional overeating.”
The Link Between Hormones and Emotional Overeating
The regulation of food intake is associated with two brain systems: the homeostatic system which coordinates energy intake with expenditure and describes the body’s physiological needs is linked to hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, such as ghrelin and leptin. The hedonistic system, involved in reward and motivational aspects of energy consumption, is characterized by the influence of “mood hormones,”: serotonin and dopamine. Within the gastrointestinal wall, there is a network of nerve cells that send signals to the brain through the gut-brain axis, affecting our mood and digestion.
Communication Between the Gut and the Brain
Additionally, the gut microbiome plays a role in the production of serotonin and the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety, reducing anxiety and depression. Probiotic genera associated with a positive impact on mental health are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, making any disruption of the gut microbiome undesirable. Gut dysbiosis, apart from neurological disturbances, can also increase the long-term risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and other functional gastrointestinal disorders.
The Impact of Emotions on Digestive Processes
It is well-known that stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a series of hormonal changes and the activation of a cascade of physiological responses known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which is the body’s reaction to situations perceived as dangerous. Emotional stress often affects the physiology of the intestines, resulting in a range of digestive problems. These digestive issues can vary from a burning sensation in the stomach, heartburn, bloating, and nausea, to diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, cramps, abdominal pain, and more. Prolonged exposure to stress does not allow a return to a balanced state of normal digestion, leading to a chronically underactive or overactive digestive system. This disrupts metabolism and the absorption of nutrients, negatively impacting the gut microbiota, which directly or indirectly influences all systems in the body.
In addition to satisfying the body’s physiological needs (growth, development, disease defense, etc.), food is often associated with emotional well-being. While food choices depend on individual preferences, during moments of emotional stress the focus often turns to what is known as “comfort food.”
Consuming “comfort food” leads to the release of dopamine and serotonin, hormones that have a positive impact on mood, providing feelings of pleasure and happiness. These hormones activate parts of the brain responsible for forming memories and emotional reactions, reinforcing the idea that such foods should be consumed more often. This association between specific foods and emotions leads to their repeated consumption, but it can also result in overeating.
Of course, reaching for “comfort food” is not the only behavior associated with stress that can impact the increase of body weight. Dealing with a whirlwind of emotions often leads to insufficient sleep, a lack of physical activity, inadequate hydration, and increased alcohol intake, all of which can also contribute to weight gain.
Consequences of Emotional Overeating
Emotional overeating is mostly associated with excessive body weight, obesity, inadequate dietary patterns, and other conditions that carry the risk of various chronic diseases (cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes) and a range of conditions that significantly reduce the quality of life. While it may not seem at first that excessive consumption of “comfort food” can cause a nutritional deficiency of vitamins and minerals, studies have shown that inadequate nutrition is indeed linked to insufficient intake of iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, folate, vitamins A, and B12. Paradoxically, these are the nutrients that support the normal function of the brain, reduce the risk of sleep disorders and anxiety, and assist in coping with one’s emotions and stress.
How and Why to Recognize (Emotional) Hunger
It is essential to become aware of the differences between emotional and physical hunger to break the cycle of emotional overeating. Emotional hunger can be incredibly strong but usually arises suddenly, feels irresistible, and is extremely urgent. It often takes the form of a craving for a specific food or type of food, as if nothing else will do. Emotional eating is often unconscious, leading to the consumption of a larger amount of food because it doesn’t satisfy the feeling of satiety. Emotional hunger is like a thought that’s impossible to get out of your head, and after consuming the desired food, guilt often follows, either due to the quantity of food eaten or the choice of “unhealthy” foods.
On the other hand, physiological hunger is characterized by a gradual development of hunger, and the need for food is not urgent, nor does it demand immediate fulfillment of specific cravings. In such moments, any food is desirable, meal consumption is more conscious, and after the meal, there is a feeling of satisfaction and satiety.
In conclusion, there is no need to avoid food, but it is possible to choose foods that satisfy both types of hunger. It is important to include foods in your daily diet that not only meet your energy needs but also provide a significant amount of other nutrients.
Food for Emotions
For example, dark chocolate is a nutritionally superior choice compared to milk chocolate because it is rich in polyphenols, and magnesium, and it stimulates the production of so-called “happiness hormones.” Berries are also recommended as they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Nuts provide healthy fats that prolong the feeling of satiety and contain vitamins important for the health of the nervous and immune systems. Fish and seafood are excellent sources of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and B-complex vitamins, all of which have a positive impact on cognitive functions. Incorporating fermented dairy products into your diet is of great importance for gut health due to their probiotic content, which not only affects digestive health but also directly impacts brain health.
Consuming superfoods that contain the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine can enhance dopamine synthesis and have a positive impact on concentration and motivation. These foods include turmeric, lentils, fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, nuts, seeds, and vegetables like broccoli and spinach.
Foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan can boost serotonin synthesis, which positively affects mood, sleep, and appetite control. Among these foods are seafood, eggs, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes, quinoa, etc.
Emotional eating often seems unavoidable when a mix of emotions, fatigue, and stress come together at the end of a tiring day. However, it is possible to indulge in the enjoyment of food without overeating. Enjoying the taste, colors, and textures of food is entirely possible through mindful eating practices. Engaging in other activities during meals, like watching TV, driving, or using your phone, is a common mistake that masks the feeling of satiety and reduces the pleasure that food can provide, contributing to the mentioned vicious cycle.
It is essential to remember that food can be a valuable support and tool for dealing with a whirlwind of emotions and stressful situations if we pay attention to what and how we eat.
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