Beware of emotional eating

By Capt. Candice Hebert, Psychologist, U.S. Army Public Health CommandNovember 1, 2013

Choose healthy snacks
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"I have a deadline to meet; I am working long hours and feel overwhelmed. I

usually eat something sweet to cope with the stress."

"My wife and I are having problems in our marriage … I stay up late and eat--

usually pizza--it helps me cope with the anxious feelings."

"I've been feeling lonely lately, so I sit in front of the TV with potato chips or some other type of junk food to help with the sadness."

"When I am feeling depressed I am constantly hungry."

At one time or another, most of us have turned to food to cure our emotional troubles or make ourselves feel better. In essence, we are feeding our emotions. However, problems arise when eating becomes the only approach we use to manage emotions--especially if the foods we choose to eat are unhealthy or the amounts are excessive. If you are experiencing persistent depressed mood for more than two weeks, see a healthcare provider.

The connection between serotonin and food

What is the connection between food and mood? A neurotransmitter, a mood hormone, called serotonin. When serotonin levels are low, we feel sad and when elevated, we feel happy. Serotonin is known to be in many antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft. However, what most people don't know is that the majority of our serotonin cells are in our digestive systems, not our brains. Thus, diet plays a big role in our serotonin levels!

Carbohydrate-rich foods have a big effect on our serotonin levels. When we are sad or upset (low serotonin levels), we crave foods high in carbohydrate to feel better. It makes sense then, why people who are feeling down eat more junk food. In addition, the connection between serotonin and food is noticeable in the depressive feelings experienced after several weeks of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. The effect of dieting and low carbohydrate intake decreases our serotonin levels and causes us to feel down. This in turn may lead dieters to crave carbohydrate-rich foods to improve their mood, which usually results in overeating and contributes to Regaining weight.

The behavior connection

When you form the habit of feeding an emotion, you put off learning skills to manage your emotions. Here are some tips to help break the habit of feeding your emotions:

• Identify your triggers for emotional eating.

• Take notice of when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, sad or anxious.

• Instead of searching for something to eat, do an enjoyable non-food related activity. Go outside, take a walk, or talk to a friend, family member, or coworker.

• If you find that your emotional eating is out of control, enlist the help of a qualified professional such as a registered dietitian and/or a behavioral health specialist (such as a social worker, therapist or psychologist).

Keep in mind that it is OK to eat the foods you enjoy in moderation. If you find that you absolutely have to have a favorite food, like chocolate, take the time to enjoy it. Engage the food with all your senses--touch it, smell it, chew it slowly and savor the taste. You will find that you are more fulfilled with a small amount versus the whole package. In addition, develop the habit of reaching for healthy serotonin-boosting snacks such as nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Summing up

Understanding what we eat, and how our mood relates to our behavior are important ways to help improve our mood. A well-balanced diet and engaging in healthy activities can keep us feeling great more often.

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U.S. Army Public Health Command