Emotional eating describes the tendency to eat when experiencing negative thoughts or feelings, and has been linked to increased body fat and severe obesity. While these negative thoughts and feelings are often rooted in harmful childhood experiences, they can also occur in people who remember a happy childhood. Emotional eating is a reaction to anger, anxiety and emotional pain. The pleasure of a food laced with fat, sugar and/or salt can soothe and distract from uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. Research suggests that emotional eaters often confuse difficult feelings with hunger signals, because emotions trigger the hunger response. Stuffing emotions by hiding outward signs of inner distress has been found to increase intake of foods high in fat and carbohydrates; the so-called “comfort foods”.
One does not have to be a basket case to experience emotional eating. I’ve noticed that when my partner, who travels for work, is on the road, I experience some loneliness, anxiety, boredom and low moods. At these times I have a tendency to use food to distract myself from those uncomfortable feelings. I choose foods that comforted me in the past, usually high in fat and salt (and calories). If I don’t apply the skills of mindful eating, I have little defense against the impulse to buy a bag of chips or eat some buttered and salted microwave popcorn. Without mindful eating, I forget to care that fat and salt cancel nutritional benefits. Furthermore, when I gobble these foods, I am in danger of developing increased emotional distress and entering an eating cycle that is difficult to interrupt.
Food processing, marketing, packaging and presentation are motivated primarily by the intention to get us to eat more — more quickly, more quantity, more often. Ads for unhealthy foods high in fat, salt or added sugar (most processed and fast foods) reinforce the message that snacking on high-calorie foods is normal, pleasurable, and will increase happiness and social desirability. It is not surprising that people who spend a lot of time watching television eat more unhealthy foods than people who spend a lot of time exercising, gardening or learning to play a musical instrument.
Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating; observing the tastes, textures, flavors, appearance, sounds and smells of food, while also attending to the physical and emotional aspects of eating. With mindful eating, we learn to appreciate the difference between physiological and emotional hunger. Mindful eating supports weight loss and healthy eating by cultivating an awareness of and appropriate response to physiological hunger and satiation signals, and places emphasis on quality over quantity. Mindful eating is not dieting. It is becoming more aware of how we make harmful food choices and how we can make healthy food choices.
Suggested practice: Identify foods you eat that are composed of fats, salt and/or sugar. Reflect on the emotional circumstances that trigger desire for these foods. For two weeks, notice and let go of the impulse to eat these foods. Pay attention to how this impacts your emotions and thoughts.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-6500.