Why is it that when we hit an all-time emotional low, we often reach for unhealthy food? It's the one-two punch you just don't need when you're feeling down, but according to Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, there is a way to combat this frustrating habit. "There isn't one singular reason people practice emotional eating—there are numerous factors," he tells MyDomaine.
On a physiological level, he says understanding how the limbic system works is key. Known as the brain's "emotional switchboard," it receives "sensory input from the environment and then governs how the body responds to those inputs," he explains. "[It] also regulates eating and hunger, so if we have a predisposition to soothe feelings of stress, pain, anger, or fear with food, the limbic system will begin to trigger that response going forward in order to satisfy our need for comfort." Add the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin to the mix, and it can spell trouble. "Ghrelin is directly linked to stress, so the higher the stress level, the hungrier we often feel."
It's not all bad news, though. Axe says that by identifying your triggers and slowly incorporating new rituals into your routine, it's possible to switch from emotional to mindful eating. "Mindful eating helps to reduce the stress that can accompany meals and meal planning, and it also helps us to feel more satisfied and fulfilled from meals, which can reduce the urge to seek satisfaction from less healthy practices," he says.
Ahead, Axe maps out everything you need to know to kick the habit: how to know if you struggle with emotional eating, what you can learn from "intuitive eating," and, most importantly, how to combat unhealthy habits for good.
Emotional eating is different from person to person, but Axe says these are the telltale signs that you might struggle with the habit:
- You eat when triggered by emotions rather than (physical) hunger.
- You continue eating despite feeling full.
- You often multitask while eating instead of paying attention and enjoying the experience. This might mean watching TV, cooking, emailing, reading, driving, or anything else that takes your attention away.
- You frequently graze on snacks but skip actual meals that require you to sit down and take your time.
- You ignore your body's hunger signals and physical cues. You might skip certain meals altogether (like breakfast or lunch while at work) because you "forgot to eat," didn't have time, or were in a rush.
- You ignore portion sizes and your appetite, and eat everything on your plate just because it's there.
- You feel like you're eating almost as if in a trance, and once you're finished, you feel like the meal never even happened.
- You ultimately believe that you have little or no control over food and your own body.
- You stress about food choices, label foods "good or bad," criticize yourself, and rely on fad diets or other people to determine what and how much you eat.
Why do we tend to reach for unhealthy foods when we're emotional rather than, say, a salad? Axe says it's not about flavor; it's about our body's physiological response. "Processed, high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods are appealing when we're emotional because they lead to a surge in blood pressure (which boosts energy) and serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates happiness and mood)," he says. "Unfortunately, these foods are also what I call 'bad mood foods' because, after the spike in positive emotions and energy that they cause, they inevitably lead to a crash that starts the cycle all over again."
While there's no simple "one size fits all" solution, Axe says intuitive eating offers some great insights to change your eating habits. "Intuitive eating helps to diminish a lot of the guilt that many people experience when they try—and fail—to diet or change their eating habits. It doesn't eliminate any food groups, but it allows for acceptance of any and all food choices by emphasizing proper nutrition and the unique needs and desires of the individual," he says.
In essence, intuitive eating encourages people to be more in tune with their hunger cues, rather than rely on dieting rules. "Intuitive eating suggests that it's okay to have a piece of cake during a celebratory lunch at work, which is completely different from gorging on sweets all day in efforts to ease stress or numb other negative feelings. And I agree."
Somewhat similar to mindful eating, it places an emphasis on eating purposefully and not just because it's mealtime, or because certain foods fit within diet rules. For those who struggle with emotional eating, it could help tap into your body's natural hunger signals to decide when to eat and how best to satiate your appetite.
The Next Steps
Ready to kick the habit? Follow Axe's 11 steps to curb emotional eating once and for all.
- Reduce stress, and acknowledge your feelings. "Try exercise, mindful breathing, meditating, journaling, massage therapy, yoga, or any other practice that will lower stress and reduce the urge to eat emotionally."
- Keep a food diary. "This should record not only your food choices but also your emotions to help you make the connection between the two. Pay close attention to what triggers your desire to eat so you can work to address the root cause."
- Become more aware of your "eating on autopilot" tendencies. "When do you find yourself eating while not paying attention? Is it while working, watching TV, or feeding your kids?"
- Ask yourself, Do I want to eat something just because I see it? "Eating is sometimes triggered by presence and proximity to food, or by seeing other people eat."
- Make a point to tune into your meal and engage all your senses. "When you eat, smell your food, observe its colors and textures, chew well, and take your time. Your perception of pleasurable eating (and what will keep you from craving more food later) is in part based on the aroma and sight of your food, so make sure you capture all of it."
- When eating, just eat. "Don't engage in other behaviors that require your limited and precious attention."
- Slow down while eating. "Try to eat your meals over 15 to 20 minute time periods to give your body time to alert you when you're full. Take sips of water between bites, put your fork down, or speak with whoever you are eating with—without chewing at the same time."
- Observe the way you eat. "This includes your speed, level of tension, thoughts, and mannerisms. If you're eating too quickly or feeling guilty while you eat or picking up another bite while still chewing, all these things can distract from mindfulness."
- Question your current eating routine or schedule. "You should eat in accordance with real hunger—not automatically, based on the clock or a preset routine, like always having a snack when you watch TV after dinner."
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. "Cravings and stressful situations will occur. Just remember that you always have control over them."
- Practice patience and self-compassion. "Being judgmental and critical only leads to more stress and emotional eating. Lose the criticism and guilty self-talk, and instead focus on progress, not perfection."