Soothing the pain of a breakup with a pint of ice cream. Filling the unbearable ache of loneliness with take-out pizza and fudge brownies. Baking - and then eating - huge batches of chocolate chip cookies or other goodies to cope during a family illness or death. Emotional eating in all of its forms is a familiar problem to almost everybody, and it has serious, measurable health effects.
Emotional eating (defined as eating to self-soothe in the face of negative emotions like fear, sadness, anxiety, depression, or grief) is an accurate predictor of weight gain, even in people who work out a lot. And it can really sabotage even the best-laid plans for weight loss. For instance, in this study on people trying to lose weight, emotional eaters lost less weight and had a more irregular pattern of weight loss than non-emotional eaters.
A lot of people who want to go Paleo struggle with emotional eating setting them back. And from a Paleo perspective, this is a really interesting problem because emotional overeating isn’t actually a natural human response to depression or sadness. If you think about humans as a species, our natural species behavior is actually to undereat in response to stress or other strong negative emotions.
So why do so many people today over-eat in the face of negative emotions? It might have something to do with the way life in the modern world messes with our gut health and our sleeping patterns - in this post, we're taking a look at physiological factors that make people more prone to emotional overeating. But first, a closer look at exactly what emotional eating is.
Emotional Eating: A Closer Look
Emotional eating is common, but it’s not universal. In fact, some people eat more when they’re happy and less when they’re sad. When researchers take people and make them sad (for example, by having them watch a sad movie), some people feel decreased desire for food while other people start craving food.
Emotional eating in response to negative emotion is more common in women, people with obesity, people who deliberately try to restrict their food consumption, and people with binge-eating problems.
Emotional eating often involves very tasty food, but it’s completely different from eating for pleasure. In fact, people who eat to experience the pleasure of tasting delicious food tend to eat less when they’re sad, not more. Emotional eating isn’t really about appreciating the qualities of the specific food or savoring a special meal.
Emotional Eating and Binge Eating
Emotional eating doesn’t have to involve binge eating: emotional eating is about the reason why you eat, not the amount of food you eat. But emotional eating and binge eating often go together and a lot of people binge-eat in response to their emotions..
Drivers of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating isn’t caused just by the presence of negative emotions. Everyone experiences grief and sadness and anger at some point, because those are all totally normal parts of a complete human life. But not everyone eats in response. The real problem isn’t that people have negative emotions; the real problem is the way we respond to them, both physically and psychologically.
If you go look in the literature on emotional eating, you’ll read a lot about coping skills. Emotional eaters tend to have worse emotional regulation skills and rely on less helpful methods of managing emotional distress. All of that is very interesting and emotional coping skills are definitely helpful, but coping skills aren't the only way to tackle the problem. There's also some evidence in favor of physiological factors that can make you more or less vulnerable to emotional eating regardless of coping skills or other psychological training.
Specifically, life in the modern world is really bad for sleep quality and gut health, and both problems might make people more vulnerable to emotional eating when they're sad or stressed out.
Sleep and Emotional Eating
Getting enough high-quality sleep can really help make you less susceptible to the lure of emotional eating.
Poor sleep quality is linked to higher emotional eating scores. When researchers take people in the lab and make them feel stressed and crummy, the people who didn’t get enough sleep eat more snacks to deal with their stress. Sleep deprivation makes people hyper-responsive to negative and positive stimuli - basically, it makes people more emotionally volatile. They feel negative moods more intensely, so it’s harder for them to get a handle on their own emotions and stay on an even keel. On the flip side, they’re more responsive to rewarding stimuli like delicious food. That's a two-part recipe for diving right into a pint of Ben & Jerry's at the first sign of a bad day, because whatever is getting you down feels even worse than it normally would, while the reward from the ice cream feels even better than usual.
Sleep deprivation also adds an element of physiological stress that causes sugar cravings regardless of mood. Basically, poor sleep or inadequate sleep makes emotions feel really powerful and makes sugar look like a really great solution.
If you want to get a handle on emotional eating, getting lots of high-quality sleep should definitely be in your plan. Check out 4 foods for better sleep, Sleep hygiene strategies for a top-quality snooze, and more information about melatonin, if falling asleep is giving you trouble.
Gut Health and Emotional Eating
Maintaining a healthy population of “good bacteria” in the gut can also blunt your body’s response to negative emotion and help reduce stress- or depression-induced eating. Basically, if you have a healthy and thriving population of bacteria in your gut, then your gut bacteria are more resilient to changes caused by stress or other negative emotions. This helps to prevent sugar cravings and other issues caused by bacterial imbalances in the gut.
The role of gut health in emotional eating is complicated, but this paper is free to read and goes over a lot of the science piece by piece.
Briefly, stress and negative emotions affect the population of bacteria that live in the gut, and those changes in the gut bacteria affect the way you perceive pleasure and reward. Gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like dopamine, the chemical that governs reward and motivation, and serotonin, known for its role in mood regulation. By changing your gut bacteria, negative emotions affect your brain's mood and reward processing circuitry - aka the systems you use to decide if that cookie is "worth it" and weigh the short-term pleasure of the cookie against your long-term health goals.
Changes in gut bacteria also change the kinds of food you want to eat. This review goes over all the ways that gut microbes can control eating behavior, but the point here is that the gut bacteria are looking out for their own benefit, not yours. Any given species of bacteria will try to get you to eat the type of things that will be helpful to that particular kind of bacteria. So if you’ve got a lot of bacteria that feed on simple sugar, guess what you’re going to be craving?
For protection against emotional eating, the ideal situation would be a resilient and stable population of gut bacteria that resist stress-induced changes. Negative emotions are going to happen, but they don't necessarily have to throw your whole gut ecosystem off the rails and make you all kinds of problems with reward processing and sugar cravings.
One great way to cultivate resilience and prevent a single species from becoming dominant is to have a diverse population of gut bacteria with a lot of different species competing for territory. When you’ve got a healthy competition between bacterial species, it’s harder for one stressful event or sad time in your life to throw everything out of whack, and it’s harder for one single sugar-craving species to take over.
For some practical tips on this, check out some gut-health strategies for weight loss, information on prebiotics and probiotics, and our gut portal.
Summing it Up
Emotional eating is the biggest barrier to weight loss for a lot of people. On top of learning better emotional coping skills and strategies for managing sadness or frustration, quite a bit of research suggests that paying attention to sleep and gut health can make you more resilient and less susceptible to emotional eating on a physiological level.
From a Paleo perspective, this might explain why people today struggle so much with emotional overeating. The modern diet and lifestyle really do a number on sleep and gut health, from the electronic screens flashing blue light in our faces all the time to the constant influx of gut-irritating refined grains. It's no surprise that so many people have gut problems and sleep issues, and that so many people struggle with emotional eating as a result. Dealing with these issues isn't a quick fix, but research suggests that can make a big difference in the long run for people who struggle with emotional eating.
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