Stress and Emotional Eating – What causes it and How to stop it

When we ask those who seek our help, “What do you think has contributed to weight gain?”, many people identify that it’s “because I’m an emotional eater”.
So, let’s unpack this topic a bit more, because, even in that response, there is already a tonne of self blame, shame and guilt around eating, and when we really understand what causes us to overeat, it is possible to shift from self blame to self empowerment, and get back in the driver’s seat when it comes to a healthy relationship with food and weight control.

What is emotional eating?

We can all recall a time that we pulled in to the shops to get that chocolate bar after a stressful day at work or the packet of chips and glass of wine that come out after dinner, when we are exhausted and finally have some down time to ourselves.

Emotional eating encapsulates eating when we are stressed, tired, bored, angry, happy… well any emotion, really! In fact, we can more accurately call this type of eating, reward eating or non hungry eating. This recognises the fact, that we are, by nature, emotional beings, and our brain is primed to avoid painful experiences and move towards more rewarding or pleasurable experiences.

So what causes emotional eating?

There are two strong drivers for us to eat:
1. Hungry eating
2. Non hungry or reward eating

By far and away, the strongest reason for an individual to eat, is the biological drive to survive – Hunger -making sure we do not run out of energy. The body has several systems to help detect when energy levels are low and to help replenish our energy reserves. For example, when we lose fat mass (after weight loss), leptin levels go down and this stimulates appetite drive. When we have not had enough to eat for the day, then Ghrelin is produced in the stomach – this is the hormone that makes us hungry and interested in food.

“But I’m not hungry but still want to eat” Hungry eating is probably not the best way to describe this type of eating, but more “Interest in Food”.

Thinking about food often, boredom eating, food cravings, not feeling satisfied with smaller servings of food, going back for seconds and “I’m just a foodie”. These are just some of the ways in which our biological drive to eat, manifests. We rarely feel hungry anymore, as by and large in this age, we have good access to food and drink.

“So why don’t I crave a steak and salad and instead find myself wanting junk food?”

When can thank our caveman ancestors for this.. Over thousands of years, we have developed an innate ability to detect and seek out the foods that will give us the best bang for buck – that is, the most amount of calories in the smallest amount of food. So our brain interprets these high calorie foods as being more important – well at least, more important for survival 10,000 years ago. That is why a chocolate bar seems more appealing than a healthy plate of meat and vegetables – it is more likely to fill up our energy reserves more quickly.

The role of food manufacturing and marketing.

Of course, with the advent of food manufacturing, food scientists have learnt what is most appealing to our brains – they have discovered that the right amount of fat, salt and sugar in a food – the so called “Bliss point” – can make that food highly appealing to it is consumers, which of course, improves the bottom line. Think of a school canteen – when salad rolls are sold next to chips and chocolate bars, we know which ones are more popular and will sell out.

So why are chocolate bars so hard to resist?

Let us think about eating and the reward pathways in our brain.

When we see a food or eat a highly palatable food, it can trigger off the release of dopamine into the Nucleus Accumbens – this is the reward centre in our brain. It helps us to identify which foods are going to be palatable and pleasurable. The hippocampus and amygdala are those parts of the brain associated with forming emotions and memories around that food and the reward we experience from it.

Then we use the Orbitofrontal cortex to decide if we should or shouldn’t eat the food, depending on our past experiences of this action – is it likely to be pleasurable or painful? In the case of treat foods, it’s likely to be a pleasurable experience and reinforcing. We do however, have our prefontal cortex..this part of brain, can override the impulse to eat at times, if the reward impulse is not too strong.

However, in eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, the reward pathways get amplified and the “let’s not eat this” signals from above are dampened down, resulting in loss of control over eating.

What is binge eating disorder?

Whilst many of can confess to a “binge” on chocolate or popcorn or ice cream from time to time, Binge eating disorder is a distinct mental health condition that has the following features:

  • An intense desire to overeat (eating an excessive amount of food in a set period of time)
  • Feelings of lack of control, shame and guilt
  • Causing a high degree of distress – impacting on work or school, friendships and intimate relationships

What causes binge eating disorder?

In Binge eating disorder, there are disruptions to both the reward and impulse control system – key neurotransmitters of dopamine and noradrenaline are involved. It is understandable then, that there is a great degree of overlap between Binge eating disorder and ADHD. It is also not surprising, that, amongst psychological therapies, one of the treatments for Binge Eating Disorder, is the same pharmacological treatment as for ADHD.

How can I stop emotional eating or binge eating?

Sometimes it can seem insurmountable and overwhelming, and feelings of being out of control can be hard to come back from. But IT IS possible to manage overeating and binge eating. Here’s how:

1. Control the biological drive to eat – managing hunger is a key strategy to managing emotional and binge eating patterns. It turns hiking up Mount Everest into climbing up a small hill. Manageable. Achievable. Doable.

2. Identify the triggers – stress, boredom, tiredness, filling the void – no matter what the need, it is important to understand the triggers for eating and find some non food solutions to meeting those needs.

3. Have an armory of tools in your back pocket to manage the non hungry eating urges. This might include riding the craving wave, using a craving lay-by or having some low calorie snacks that can be used to substitute for the more calorie laden snacks.

4. Manage underlying mental health conditions – Sometimes there is a history of trauma, or underlying mental health conditions such as ADHD, anxiety or depression that have gone unrecongised. All of these need to be identified and managed well with the help of our highly trained bariatric GPs. Our bariatric doctors also refer to psychologists with expertise in binge eating and emotional eating – therapies such as CBT-E for binge eating or EMDR for trauma can be especially helpful.

The truth is, there is no one solution for emotional or binge eating. It is complex and the solutions will be tailored to the individual and their circumstances.

One of the first barriers to reaching out for help is overcoming the feelings of shame and embarrassment that often accompany emotional or binge eating. If you can identify with these feelings or patterns of eating and you’d like some help, then please reach out to our team at Alevia for assistance.

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