One aspect of dieting that people can overlook is the emotional attachment we have with food. Food is one of the most emotionally charged items in our lives. We can be triggered to eat when we’re stressed, angry, sad, lonely, restless or bored. In a simple world, food is just for function and is what we need to motor on a daily basis but why is a pizza or a tub of Ben & Jerry’s far more comforting than a chicken salad or tub of cottage cheese?
One reason is the association we have with a certain food that triggers a desire to have it under certain circumstances. For instance, when you hurt yourself as a child, your mother may have given you a sweet to stop your crying. Therefore, from a young age you are programmed that sweets bring comfort and ease pain. Another reason is a system in our brain called the ‘reward system’. This system is designed to ‘reward’ us when we do things that encourage survival such as eating. The brain senses we are doing something ‘right’ when eating so releases feel good chemicals such as dopamine, interpreted by our brain as pleasure hence why people reach for food in emotional times. The problem is, highly palatable and calorific foods such as ice cream cause a far greater release of dopamine over say a piece of fruit. Unfortunately, this good feeling is short lived whilst still not fixing the emotional problem. It can also leave you feeling worse as you now have the feeling of guilt for overeating on top of the original emotion.
So what can you do to overcome eating your emotions?
1. Know the difference between emotional and physical hunger. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly whilst physical hunger comes on more gradually. By identifying emotional hunger, you can realise you are eating to mask a problem and not because you are actually hungry.
2. Identify your triggers. Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings but it can also be triggered by positive emotions such as a feeling of ‘need’. An example being the need to ‘reward’ yourself for keeping to your diet during the weekday so you ‘reward’ yourself with a takeaway and ice cream on a Saturday. By identifying your trigger, you can use other methods to deal with that emotion.
3. Use alternative methods to deal with emotions. Physical activity can do wonders for your mood by stimulating the release of the neurotransmitters called endorphins which can leave us feeling good about ourselves. Other methods such as meditation, yoga or practising mindfulness can be great ways to relax the body in a stressed state and avoid reaching for food. If you feel you need cheering up, rather than reach for food which can only leave you feeling worse, look at alternative methods such as buying new clothes or booking a holiday. This can also be a great way to keep you motivated when on a weight loss journey.
4. Surround yourself with a strong support network. Don’t underestimate the benefits of talking to others about your emotions. Talking it out can allow you lift a weight off your shoulders rather than fighting a frustrating solo battle which other leads to further frustration.
Dieting is as much psychological as it is physiological. Have your emotional foundations in place to make working towards your goals far easier.