emotional eating

Cookies and Prozac

I'll say it. Whoever is running the Weight Watchers ad campaign right now is hitting the nail on the head of our insecurities around food. At the end of 2014, Weight Watchers came out with this commercial.

(Surely, there are problems with the portrayal of people in this commercial but I'll let you read this article by binge eating disorder specialist, Jennie Kramer, for that).

In the commercial, to the tune of  If You're Happy and You Know it, they sing if you're sad, bored, lonely, or stressed, you might turn to food for comfort. Not only did this resonate with me because I teach kids and babies but also because it's something that comes up often in my one-on-one client sessions. In fact, it's even come up in my blog posts before.

The 7th principle of Intuitive eating is, "honor your feelings without using food." When you start to eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full, you might start to notice the times you would eat despite not being hungry.


Before you start beating yourself up over it, I want you to recognize:  

There is NOTHING wrong with you. 

In fact, there might be something deeply right. We eat to celebrate, to distract, to numb, and to comfort. (We eat for pleasure too).

For anybody who regularly craves sweets, sugar, or carbohydrates, there's actually a SCIENTIFIC reason for that.  Check out this quote from a scientific study:  

"Serotonin-releasing brain neurons are unique in that the amount of neurotransmitter they release is normally controlled by food intake: Carbohydrate consumption--acting via insulin secretion and the "plasma tryptophan ratio"--increases serotonin release....[The] tendency to use certain foods as though they were drugs is a frequent cause of weight gain, and can also be seen in patients who become fat when exposed to stress, or in women with premenstrual syndrome, or in patients with "winter depression," or in people who are attempting to give up smoking. (Nicotine, like dietary carbohydrates, increases brain serotonin secretion" (Wurtman & Wurtman, 1995).

In laymen's terms, carbohydrates make it easier to create serotonin in your brain. Serotonin makes you feel good. SSRI inhibitors, or drugs that people often take for depression, help prevent serotonin re-uptake so you have more of it. People who are experiencing stress, seasonal affective disorder, or even PMS, are likely to reach for food that helps to manage the low "feel-good" neurotransmitters in our brains.

Turns out this is also true when it comes to dopamine levels and protein.  A craving for a burger might signal an overworked nervous system or that your desk job is too damn boring. 

So, maybe if you're sad, you're using those cookies to self-medicate. 

Good for you. You're taking care of yourself. But, they may not work as well as pharmaceutical drugs and they certainly don't last as long.  Worse than that, you're treating a symptom of the problem, not the cause. 

I like to tell my own story about this for my clients:

I used to have this job that was pretty physically demanding but not very intellectually demanding. Most importantly, it felt like a dead end. I was going nowhere. I was depressed but I didn't have the insight at the time to recognize all those feelings.

After my late night shifts, I would come home and eat  A LOT of cereal.

Like, bowl after bowl of cereal until I was physically uncomfortable from my fullness. I also used to feel really guilty about every bowl and I think I got a little high from "being bad."Once I quit that job and moved on to more exciting things, a funny thing happened: I stopped eating cereal. I stopped craving cereal. I don't even like it. I almost never eat it now. 

So, here's the solution: 

We need to identify the root cause of why we're eating emotionally.

What are our emotions????

Lonely? Bored? Try hanging out with your friends or doing something exciting like skiing or snowboarding. Or ski or snowboard with your friends.

In fact, I really love this article from the Huffington Post. It has a super easy way to identify the neurotransmitter you're missing when you're feeling a certain feeling. I highly recommend going there to see what alternate activity you could engage in to re-balance your brain.  The bottom line: dopamine=bored, serotonin=sad, oxytocin=lonely, and endorphins=anxious. You get dopamine from accomplishing goals, serotonin from feeling significant, oxytocin from cuddling, and endorphins from exercise and laughing. 

I spoke to fellow health coach Kylie Reiffert, MS in nutrition and Nutrition Therapy Provider, to help me untangle some of the scientific nuances of this phenomenon with food. While she recommends some healthy protein and fat along with magnesium supplements to help curb cravings for carbs, she notes that when we take different actions, like those listed above, to manage those chemical imbalances, "the concentrations are different because it's hard to measure the serum level increases, but [it works] nonetheless."

So there you have it. You need a hug, not a Hershey's Kiss. Still, don't blame yourself for buying the chocolate. 

Happy Valentine's Day!


**If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please seek the advice of a professional. You don't have to do this by yourself.**

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