We have been shaped and taught to eat when we are hungry. That would also be the most logical thing to do, wouldn't it? But what if I told you there is a scientifically proven connection between our emotions and eating issues?
What is emotional eating exactly?
Emotional eaters are people who want to eat food even when they are not hungry. They eat as a way to relieve emotional problems, to relieve stress, purely for comfort, to discharge tension, anger or frustration, or even simply to distract themselves from a thought that is making them feel uneasy. And the biggest issue with emotional eating is – after you eat, the original problem still persists.
You have eaten a fair amount of food, yet the emotional trigger, that caused you to eat in the first place, remained. It may seem self-destructive but it is their way of coping – it is often an attempt to manage mood with food (unintentional rhyme). Emotional eating, which is the result of negative emotional states that happen due to certain triggers, is also a core feature of binge eating.
There are two main issues with emotional eating. The first one is that the food we eat during episodes of emotional eating is usually fast food or unhealthy food in general. When a certain episode gets triggered because of unpleasant emotions; sadness, anxiety, and others, there is a tendency for the preferred food to be consisted mainly out of carbs.
There is a good evolutionary reason for this. Sugar that can be found in carbs raises our dopamine levels, which in return make us feel better for a short period of time. Therefore, people also fall in a vicious cycle where they get accustomed to solving feelings of sadness and other unpleasant emotional states by eating carbs (sugar most of the time) as it makes them feel better.
Enter emotional awareness
And when talking about emotional eating, there is one thing that is especially important, a thing we could control and try to pay more attention to ourselves if we have issues with emotional eating.
It is called emotional awareness – how aware we are of our emotions at any given time. It has been strongly connected to emotional eating in previous studies done on this topic. Basically, lower levels of emotional awareness have been connected to a higher incidence of emotional eating.
What that means is that the less attention we pay to unpleasant emotional states that we find ourselves in, the more susceptible we are to episodes of emotional eating.
Emotional awareness itself is a psychological concept that is further broken down into two different streams:
- Attention to emotion: how do we value our emotions, and how attentive we are to them
- Clarity of emotions: how well can we identify and describe our own emotions.
These two concepts have different connections to different eating disorders themselves. As I’ve already mentioned, especially the level of attention to emotion has been connected to higher levels of emotional eating. And so have been lower levels of clarity of emotions, which, have also been found to be lower in people suffering from bulimia or binge eating.
Two studies on emotional awareness
Two different studies were also examining these connections more in-depth;
Both of them were done on college women as they are particularly at risk for disturbed eating disorders. In the first study, they were trying to reaffirm the mentioned connection of attention to emotions to emotional eating. They did find an important and consistent connection between the two.
This means that we will be more likely to eat (unhealthy) food when we are experiencing different unpleasant emotional states, such as sadness or anxiety. By paying more attention to our current feelings and understanding that we sometimes want to eat just because we feel sad, we could prevent such bouts of emotional eating. Worth mentioning is also the fact that an episode of emotional eating usually also leaves the person with feelings of disgust because he did what he did, as it often involves bigger amounts of carb-rich food.
In the other study, the researchers wanted to manipulate how attentive these women were to their emotions. They were curious whether those who were less attentive would also eat more. And this is exactly what they found. When they manipulated their attention to emotion through a questionnaire which was supposed to induce social anxiety, those who had lower levels of attention to emotion, were also the ones who ate more in the study.
These results suggest that to understand, prevent, and treat such episodes, more emphasis should be put on our own emotional states too.
By analyzing our feelings when such behavior occurs, and keeping track of it (with a journal even), we could notice the triggers in our lives because of which these episodes happen.
- Emotional eating is an unhealthy way of coping with different unpleasant emotional states through eating food.
- Emotional awareness has been connected to emotional eating in the past.
- Emotional awareness can be broken down in attention to emotions and clarity of emotions.
- The former has been tested in different studies and was found to be significantly connected to emotional eating.
- By paying more attention to our emotions we could possibly suppress and prevent such eating episodes.
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