Emotional eating – When food for thought can be dangerous!

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When we eat to satisfy our cravings or as a way to manage stress, it is termed as emotional eating.

If we think about it, most of us have been participants of emotional eating at some time or the other in our lives; it could be just before delivering an important presentation at work or while studying for competitive exams.

Emotional eating – Signs and symptoms Why does emotional eating happen?

Sweet treats: Since childhood we have been offered sweet treats to wipe away our tears when we were sad. This behaviour is ingrained into our psyche. So as a way to reward ourselves for a job well done or to cope with certain feelings like anger or sadness we turn to food as a way out.

Food to celebrate: Let’s face it – any happy occasion is incomplete without loads of yummy food to go with it. Try integrating things other than food to pamper yourself. For example sign up for that heavenly spa treatment or buy that bag or wallet that you’ve been eyeing.

Food as a mood elevator: Most of us use food when we want a quick pick me up. Common feel good foods usually are in the category of junk food and are high in carbohydrates as well as calories. Common culprits are potato chips, samosas, chocolates and ice-cream. High sugar foods elevate a feel good chemical in the brain called serotonin and decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol temporarily leaving you with a mild high.

Food in social settings: Feeling inadequate at a party may make you turn to food as a saviour. Or having a good time over dinner with friends may make you forget your diet and healthy lifestyle habits and cause you to gorge. Whatever the social situation it is wise to listen to your body. Do not grab a plate just because everyone else is. Eat when you are truly hungry.

How to identify an emotional eater?

A person who eats to satisfy emotional issues generally reaches out for high calorie fattening and unhealthy food. Women choose chocolate and ice- cream while men opt for burgers, French fries and fried spicy food.

A person who uses food as an emotional crutch will not be satisfied until he has eaten exactly what he craves for. In real hunger, the person will be open to options because the goal is to satisfy that hunger. Also, an emotional eater eats quickly and can’t wait to get his hands on the food while a person who is genuinely hungry eats slowly and can wait for a short period till the food is ready.

What to do?

A little soul searching is in order here - pardon the preaching. Get to know yourself better;  better still write down for a few days everything you eat, when you eat, what are your thoughts or feelings at that time and where you are (alone or with company). You will definitely find patterns; for example, do you eat healthy only at home and throw caution to the winds when you’re out. Or do you devour unhealthy snacks when you’re stressed at work or home? Or do you use food as a reward at the end of the day since you’ve worked really hard?

If you can’t kick the habit, consult a nutritionist.

Coping tips for emotional eating

Get help: We all feel emotionally drained at times, get the help of family or friends or join a support group if that helps.

Distract yourself: If you start binging when bored, distract yourself by getting absorbed with something. Read a good book, listen to music, meet a friend or surf the net but don’t head to the fridge.

Get up and move: When the urge to eat strikes, it’s best to burn some calories instead.

Calm your mind: Try meditation or join a yoga class. It’s important to have a dialogue with yourself. If you are at peace with yourself, it reflects on the work you do.


Photograph via sxc.hu

Written by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, General Physician

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