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Are you an emotional eater?

When you are feeling down do you reach for a comfort food such as a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar, a big iced bun or bowl of ice-cream?

Comfort foods “are promoted as “feel good” foods. We seek these foods out when we want to rid ourselves of negative emotions and heighten feelings of being nurtured, comforted and secure. These foods often carry with them nostalgic associations with less stressful times in our lives such as childhood.

Comfort foods can also be linked to a specific person, place or time and they soothe us when we become anxious, lonely or bored but in excess they can lead to weight gain. and declining mental health. 1

Not everyone reacts to stress by eating more. In a recent German study of 1294 people during the Covid 19 pandemic (2021), only 50% identified themselves as stress eaters of which 68.9% stated that they eat (very) often more than usual in a stressful situation 2 Leaving 50% of people who don’t eat for comfort and around 30% of stress eaters who might eat less.

Interestingly, the drive to eat and drink more can also occur when people are feeling in a positive frame of mind.

Positive emotional eating

It is thought that people will eat more, palatable and sweet foods3 when they celebrate, in an attempt to intensify a pleasant emotional state.4However if left unchecked this increase in energy intake can also lead on to overeating and binge eating.5

Can any food be a comfort food?

Comfort foods are usually  high in calories, sugar,  fat and salt but low in fruit and vegetables. Foods such as cookies, ice-cream and chocolate have been linked to the release of opiates and serotonin which may help to elevate (or stop decline) in mood in certain populations.6  In one UK study, black tea was found to lower Cortisol thereby relieving stress.7

In a recent poll of 2000 Americans, The New York Post found that pizza, hamburgers, ice-cream, French fries, macaroni cheese, cookies and chocolate were amongst the top comfort foods chosen in 2020 during the first Covid 19 lockdown. Unfortunately, 85% of these people also reported a six -pound increase in body weight.8

Research over the Covid 19 lockdown (2021) in New Zealand found a similar trend with increases in the consumption of sweet snacks (41%), salty snacks (33%), alcohol 33% and sugar drinks (20%)9

Common reasons for negative emotional eating

  • Boredom- uncertain about what to do next
  • Stress- concern about new challenges
  • Loneliness- the need for a trusted companion
  • Disaster- fear of the unexpected
  • Hunger- low blood sugar levels trigger this
  • Hormone fluctuations- may alter blood sugar levels
  • Sleep Deprivation- alters hormones affecting appetite
  • Winter- shortened exposure to daylight increases depression.
  • Food availability- people eat more if they graze.

Differences in emotional eating effects

Culture

While the media often run stories trying to identify specific nutrients or tastes that offer comfort to combat our negative emotions, these foods and their importance to health will differ globally according to culture (See Wiki’s list of comfort foods around the globe) 10

Modern western culture mostly expects people to be happy not sad and to pursue positive feelings and to present themselves in this way to meet the cultural norms. (This is well portrayed in Instagram feeds) However when people perceive that others think they should feel happier and they’re not, this can lead them to feel sadness more intensely 11 

This western viewpoint contrasts sharply with that of the Japanese who view negative feelings as part of specific relationships. So individuals don’t have to bear the weight of negative experiences alone. Negative emotions are instead seen as arising from external sources and are therefore inevitable, transient and a natural part of life.12

The digital age and growing pool of influence

Comfort food preferences may change as we broaden the range of people and things that influence us.
In another NZ study during the Covid 19 lockdown (2021 )subjects expressed their desire for home cooked meals and baking (and the sale of flour soared nationally). However, researchers also observed the impact that the digital age was having on food choice which is now being re-shaped by the influence of celebrity chefs, smart phone apps and social media.13

Gender and age differences

There are differences in the comfort food choices and reasons that men and women turn to when emotional eating.

Men have been found to prefer warm, hearty meals such as steak casseroles and soups when looking for comfort. However they also have been found to view emotional eating positively, as a reward for success and associate these foods with feelings of jubilation and celebration.14

Women on the other hand prefer comfort foods as snacks e.g. ice-cream, chocolate and cookies and often associate comfort eating with feelings of loneliness, depression and guilt.

The top choices of comfort foods differ with age. People aged 18-34years have been found to prefer Ice-cream (77%) and cookies (70%); those aged 35-54years preferred soup (68%) and (pasta 67%) while the older age group over 55 years prefer soup (76%) and potato (74%).15

Health risk associated with emotional eating

Unfortunately left unchecked, emotional eating can lead to health problems such as:

  • Depression 16
  • Anxiety 17
  • Increased blood pressure and heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Increased levels of the stress hormone Cortisol
  • Dysregulation of the hormones Ghrelin and Leptin that regulate appetite
  • Binge eating, Bulimia Nervosa and weight gain 18,19especially in restrained eaters 20


Healthy solutions to emotional eating

We all need to eat and eating should be enjoyable. Emotional eating does not give lasting enjoyment, it doesn’t satisfy hunger and can make us feel worse,  even when we think we are celebrating.

Emotional eating is not an eating disorder. Rather it is a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Individuals who experience heightened stress levels may suffer lower eating regulation abilities and therefore fail to respond to internal signals of hunger and satiety, which can in turn lead to greater emotional eating.20

It is often associated with depression, anxiety, binge eating and bulimia. It is highly addictive and can lead on to other health problems so is definitely something to take seriously. Here’s some tips to help:

1) Avoid Hunger

  • Eat regular meals
  • Learn about foods that have a high “satiety index” as these are more filling
  • Eat a small amount of protein at each meal to delay hunger and boost serotonin and dopamine levels.
  • Increase your fluid and fibre intake.

2) Modify the calorie load of the “comfort food”

Try to lighten up the calorie value of the comfort food you choose by reducing the fat and sugar content and adding more vegetable and water content. Choose to eat real foods as these are more filling than those that are ultra -processed

  • Swap crackers and biscuits for wholegrain bread.
  • Replace a chocolate bar with a handful of unsalted mixed nuts
  • Have frozen yoghurt in place of ice cream.
  • Swap crisps for popcorn
  • Eat potatoes: mashed, stuffed, baked whole or as oven baked wedges instead of French fries.
  • Reduce the meat and add more vegetables to soups and hearty casseroles.
  • If children want to cook rather than baking cookies and sweets teach them how to make bread, muffins or scones, a meal or a salad.

3) Find other ways to increase your serotonin and dopamine levels

Seratonin is the ‘feel good’ hormone responsible for happiness, improving sleep and helping us to regulate hunger. Some activities such as exercise in sunlight, getting as little as 15-20 minutes per day of vigorous exercise and spending time with people who make us happy can naturally boost our levels of Serotonin.

Serotonin is also present in some foods and can be made from the amino acid (protein) tryptophan which is found in:

  • Salmon
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Turkey and poultry
  • Tofu and soy
  • Milk and cheese
  • Pineapple

Serotonin levels are reduced by alcohol, diet soft -drinks and excess caffeine.

Just like Serotonin, Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (i.e a chemical messenger) involved in movement, memory, behaviour, learning, attention and mood.

Dopamine also acts as a ‘hormone involved in the ‘fight and flight’ response needed at times to escape danger.  Dopamine is another ‘feel good hormone’. which increases when we eat foods that give us pleasure and reward. This is what makes comfort foods so addictive.

Dopamine is found in protein foods that contain the amino acid Tyrosine and Phenylalanine. These are mostly those foods that also contain Serotonin (see list above) along with fruits such as banana, berries, apple, watermelon, and papaya. Just like Serotonin, Dopamine levels increase with sleep and exercise.

4) Seek out other activities that give you pleasure and build self-esteem

  • Get moving e.g. go for a walk or bike ride, dance,
  • Have a pampering treat e.g. soak in a bubble bath.
  • Get creative. Tap into your natural artistic talent
  • Take up a hobby, play games with children
  • Talk to a friend
  • Keep a record of your food and feelings to help you see the problem more clearly.

4) Seek help

  • Talk to a supportive friend, GP or health nurse about your own problems and encourage children to talk more about how they feel with you.
  • Encourage children and teens to be more mindful and aware of things that trigger their need to eat on impulse.
  • Contact us today to assess your diet, stop hunger and find alternative foods for you to find comfort in

More article by Lea on similar topics:

Feeling full is the secret to weight loss

Wise up to Discretionary foods

Unlock your potential with food

Our ‘Attitude’ is the key to good health

Sleep for better self-regulation and diet

Diet help for depressed athletes

Break free from fad diets

References

1.Spencer, C. Comfort foods: A review. International journal of gastronomy and food  science. 9 (2017) 105-109.

2.Gemesi, K. Holzmann S,L. Kaiser, B et al. Stress eating: an online survey of eating behaviour, comfort foods and healthy food substitutes in German adults. BMC Public Healht 22. Article no 391 (2022)

3.Cardi, V., Lepanne, J., and Treasure, J. (2015). The effects of negative and positive mood induction on eating behaviour: a meta-analysis of laboratory studies in the healthy population and eating and weight disorders.Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev.57, 299–309. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.08.01

4. Manchon,J. Quiles,MJ. Quiles,Y. Lopez-Roig,S. Positive and Negative Emotional Eating Are Not the Same—The Spanish Version of the Positive-Negative Emotional Eating Scale (PNEES) Front. Psychol., 05 July 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.709570

5.Bongers, P., de Graaff, A., and Jansen, A. (2016). ‘Emotional’ does not even start to cover it: generalization of overeating in emotional eaters. Appetite 96, 611–616. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.11.004

6.Gibson, E.L., 2006. Emotional influences on food choice: sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiol. Behav. 89, 53–61.

7.Steptoe, A., Gibson, E.L., Vuononvirta, R., Williams, E.D., Hamer, M., Rycroft, J.A., Erusalimsky, J.D., Wardle, J., 2007. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology 190, 81–89.

8.Gervis, Z. SWNS. The top things people eat to comfort themselves during difficult times. New York Post, Sept 17, 2020.

9 Gerritsen, S.; Egli, V.; Roy, R.; Haszard, J.; Backer, C.D.; Teunissen, L.; Cuykx, I.; Decorte, P.; Pabian, S.P.; Van Royen, K.; et al. Seven weeks of home-cooked meals: Changes to New Zealanders’ grocery shopping, cooking and eating during the COVID-19 lockdown. J. R. Soc. N. Z. 202010, S4–S22.

10.Global variation in comfort foods https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort_food

11.Bastian, B., Kuppens, P., Hornsey, M. J., Park, J., Koval, P., Uchida, Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12, 69–80.

12.Curhan,K. Simes,T. Markus, HR. Kitayama, S .et al. Just how bad negative affect is for your health depends on culture. Pscyhological Science Oct 10,2014.

13.Roy R, de Castro TG, Haszard J, Egli V, Te Morenga L, Teunissen L, Decorte P, Cuykx I, De Backer C, Gerritsen S. Who We Seek and What We Eat? Sources of Food Choice Inspirations and Their Associations with Adult Dietary Patterns before and during the COVID-19 Lockdown in New Zealand. Nutrients. 2021; 13(11):3917. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13113917

14.Wansink, B., Cheney, M., Chan, N., 2003. Exploring comfort food preferences across age and gender. Physiol. Behav. 79, 739–747.

15.Wansink, B., Sangerman, C., 2000. Engineering comfort foods. Am. Demogr., 66–67, July.

16.Goldschmidt, A. B., Engel, S. G., Wonderlich, S. A., Crosby, R. D., Peterson, C. B., Le Grange, D., et al. (2012). Momentary affect surrounding loss of control and overeating in obese adults with and without binge eating disorder. Obesity 20, 1206–1211. doi: 10.1038/oby.2011.286

17.Forney, K. J., Bodell, L. P., Haedt-Matt, A. A., and Keel, P. K. (2016). Incremental validity of the episode size criterion in binge-eating definitions: an examination in women with purging syndromes. Int. J. Eat. Dis. 49, 651–662. doi: 10.1002/eat.22508

18.Devonport, T. J., Nicholls, W., and Fullerton, C. (2019). A systematic review of the association between emotions and eating behaviour in normal and overweight adult populations. J. Health Psychol. 24, 3–24. doi: 10.1177/1359105317697813

19.Al-Musharaf, S. (2020). Prevalence and predictors of emotional eating among healthy young saudi women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nutrients 12:2923. doi: 10.3390/nu1210292

20.Tan, C. C., and Chow, C. M. (2014). Stress and emotional eating: the mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personal. Individ. Differ. 66, 1–4. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.033

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »

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