Emotional Eating: the Connection Between Food and Mood

By Lisa A. Muehlenbein, NBC-HWC, E-RYT 500

by Elysian Magazine

Have you ever turned on the radio and heard a song that takes you back to a specific moment in time? 

Perhaps it’s a holiday song that reminds you of baking cookies with your loved ones. The image is so vivid that you can almost smell it! Or maybe your family had a routine as a child, like pizza night every Friday. These events weave deep roots into our subconscious emotions and can influence our behaviors, especially when we make decisions relating to food and mood without realizing it.  

We often associate food with emotion and turn to those foods when triggered. Imagine how you feel after a challenging day at work, a disagreement with a loved one or a restless night with little sleep. 

For women, hormonal changes throughout the month and in various stages of life can also contribute to emotional eating. Most of us will not reach for a salad or celery stick in situations like these. Instead, when emotions run high, we find ourselves on the hunt for those foods that bring us back to moments we felt safe and happy: mac-and-cheese, pizza, chips, or chocolate. The next thing you know, your spoon is scraping the bottom of that brand new carton of Ben & Jerry’s or polishing off a bottle of chardonnay!

The perpetual rollercoaster of emotions continues as the overwhelming feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and shame take over once we realize what we just did. The cycle continues as we brutalize ourselves with negative self-talk, resolving to run 5 miles on the treadmill tomorrow. While exercise is good, logging the miles as a method of self-deprecation and penance for our food sins doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

Here are six things you can do to help break the cycle of emotional eating:
  1. Identify the trigger. What was it that had you reaching for your comfort food?
    Example: My boss didn’t recognize the hard work I put into a significant project that was a huge success for the company.
  2. Become aware of your emotions. What were you feeling at that moment?
    Example: I felt angry, rejected, and questioned my worth and value to the team.
  3. Recognize your reaction. What did you do in response to the emotions you felt?
    Example: I picked up a large pizza on my way home from work and ate the whole thing myself.
  4. Notice how you feel. What do you feel in your body at this present moment?
    Example: I felt anxious and “checked out” before I ate. Afterward, I felt bloated, nauseous, and uncomfortable.
  5. Connect with your emotions. What emotions are you feeling after this emotional binge?
    Example: I felt guilty, ashamed, and embarrassed after I ate the pizza.
  6. Recognize the repercussions. Did my food choices make me feel better or worse about myself? How do I want to feel?Example: Eating this food made me feel bad about myself, and I don’t like feeling this way. I want to feel satisfied and nourished by the foods I give my body.

Once we have recognized our triggers, this newfound awareness acts as a red flag, interrupting the emotional eating cycle before we spiral out of control. It would be easy to judgmentally say, “just eat an apple,” but when the brain is in a heightened state, we aren’t thinking clearly. 

We must disrupt this transmission by replacing the old, destructive pattern of emotional eating with new, constructive behaviors. Calling a friend, going for a walk, working out, listening to your favorite music, journaling, meditation, and yoga are alternative coping mechanisms to manage emotions.  

An easy breathing technique known as “box breathing” can help reduce stress and calm the nervous system responsible for our fight-or-flight response.

To practice box breathing:
  • Find a comfortable sitting position and notice your normal breathing rhythm.
  • Place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart (or simply let them rest in your lap).
  • Close your eyes and picture a square or box. 
  • Breathe in for a count of 4.
  • Pause at the top of the breath and hold for a count of 4.  
  • Exhale for a count of 4.
  • Pause at the bottom of the breath for a count of 4.  
  • Repeat this cycle for one minute or until you feel calm and relaxed.

Each time we disrupt the dysfunctional cycle of emotional eating, we begin to lay the groundwork for new behavior patterns that become a lifestyle of optimal health, well-being, and living a life we love.

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