We all deal with our emotions in different ways. One may seek refuge in a friend, while others may withdraw and seek solitude. Some people turn to food as a source of comfort and pleasure. This scenario is not typically ruled by physical hunger, but rather an emotional hunger that is satisfied by specific foods, such as potato chips, ice cream or chocolate. Most comfort foods have something in common; they contain sugar, fat and/or sodium. It may be difficult to control how much we eat during these times, as ‘comfort foods’ elicit a calming feeling and ultimately improve our mood – fueling us to continue eating. We have all engaged in this behaviour on occasion in the past, but at what point does this behaviour become problematic? When one eats to create a feeling, or to manage emotions regardless of hunger levels, this creates an unhealthy relationship with food.
Food in the Reward System
Food, music and sex are stimuli that naturally release dopamine, initiating the reward centre in our brain, which deem them as rewarding and worth repeating. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter commonly known as the ‘pleasure molecule’ is increased in our brain nerve endings and creates feelings of happiness and pleasure. While food does not affect dopamine levels to the degree that addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol do, it triggers the brain to repeat the rewarding behaviour, in this case, eating. Refined foods that are heavily processed are often higher in sugar and sodium, and these are broken down and absorbed into our bloodstream quickly, giving the brain a sudden rise in dopamine levels. These refined foods are more likely to stimulate dopamine levels, versus foods that our body has to work harder to process, such as complex carbohydrates or protein including whole grains or meat.
Food is much more than just a source of energy for our bodies. It is an integral component of sustaining life. However, through habit and our own experiences, we have learned that we can manipulate how we feel by choosing certain foods. For some, this can become an all-consuming behaviour in one’s life.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Food is commonly a source of stress relief for many. People may indulge in food cravings in hopes of easing stress and anguish, or to feel happy. However, many who find themselves in these scenarios are left with feelings of regret or guilt.
How do we differentiate between emotional hunger versus physical hunger? There are many differences that can help identify whether food may improve or harm the situation.
Physical hunger is a biological signal indicating a need for food to provide our body with energy. Physical hunger is gradual, whereas emotional hunger is sudden. Emotional hunger is usually urgent, and often involves very specific foods, which are often unhealthy. However physical hunger can be delayed or addressed at a later time, and when we are open to more choices in what will be satisfying.
Often, emotional eating leaves one unsatisfied, which encourages more food in order to feel content. Whereas in physical hunger, our body registers food consumed and we feel satiated. It is common to experience feelings of guilt over the food choices made when emotional eating, while still feelings of stress remain unresolved.
Structure is an integral part of addiction recovery, and this practice is applicable to practicing healthy eating as well. It is common to eat sporadically and consume unbalanced meals when eating to fulfill feelings. These maladaptive behaviours can impact the way our brain responds to foods, which affect one’s mental and physical health.
So what does balanced and structured eating look like? While there is no ‘right’ way of healthy eating, there are many principles that we can practice that allow us to enjoy food in moderation.
Balancing each meal with a good source of grain/starch, protein and vegetable/fruit allows us to get the necessary nutrients from our food. Most “comfort” meals are high in carbohydrates and fat, but often lack fiber or protein. Each macronutrient has its role within our body.
Carbohydrates provide us with immediate energy, and also supply us with many vitamins and minerals.
Protein helps our body repair damage and produces certain neurotransmitters.
Polyunsaturated fats play a role in heart health and cognition, as well as producing feelings of fullness and satiety. These are a few examples of the importance of including balanced meals in overall health.
2. Timing and Eating
While balanced meals are important, another component of structured eating is timing. Abstaining from food for long periods of time can trigger negative feelings such as anxiety, irritability and fatigue. Small snacks are beneficial, as they allow us to refuel our body before the onset of those negative symptoms. It can also deter us from impulsive eating or acting on food cravings, as we feel satisfied and full. Three meals and three snacks a day provide us with long lasting energy throughout the day, and promote optimism, concentration and alertness. Establishing structure in one’s meal plan is beneficial in creating a healthy relationship with food, as well as improving one’s overall mental and physical health.
3. Habit and Learned Behaviours
While practicing balance and moderation are an important part of breaking the cycle of emotional eating, there are other components that lead one to rely on external sources of pleasure in times of need. Habit and learned behaviours also factor into how we utilize food during these periods. Identifying triggers can help to determine the underlying cause of stress. Boredom, stress and loneliness are often prime times when food can be an outlet for distracting one from these negative emotions.
Being able to recognize these triggers and time frames in the moment can help us make healthier choices including balance and moderation, seeking support and utilizing healthy coping mechanisms.
How to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating
If you would like to learn more about emotional eating, or if you need help, talk to your family doctor who can refer you to a nutritionist/ dietitian. Here are also links to some valuable websites worth visiting:
Heart & Stroke Foundation:
Dietitians of Canada:
Canadian Diabetes Association- The Plate Method: