Are You Eating Your Feelings?

Many of us eat because we’re angry, bored, stressed, depressed, anxious, watching a movie, busy, not busy enough, hanging out with friends, or just because we have nothing better to do. But at what point does it begin to harm our health?

Posted on | Mehmet Oz, MD | Comments ()

Many of us eat because we’re angry, bored, stressed, depressed, anxious, watching a movie, busy, not busy enough, hanging out with friends, or just because we have nothing better to do. But at what point does it begin to harm our health?

On today’s show, we talked to binge eaters – people who uncontrollably eat beyond the point of being full. The guests on our show have confessed to eating several hamburgers, a few pizzas, whole boxes of donuts, an entire bucket of fried chicken and a 2-liter bottle of soda to wash it down – all in one sitting! It’s a dangerous cycle that needs to stop – because it can kill.

What’s So Bad About Binge Eating?

Emotional eating isn’t about reaching for celery. Rather, it’s about out-of-control hedonistic eating, where we eat every cookie in the bag because they look good and taste even better – then look for more food afterward. Out of control eating can even lead to a serious condition called Binge Eating Disorder.

Not only do the excessive calories from bingeing make you gain weight, the sheer volume of the food can wreak havoc on your stomach and intestines, and cause your body to stop working. Binge eating has been known to cause high blood pressure, diabetes, gallbladder disease, heartburn, ulcers, and heart disease. Some extreme complications include stomach rupture, compression of important blood vessels, pancreatitis, intestinal obstruction, and heart attacks. People have even died right after a severe binge.

Excessive binge eating afflicts approximately 3.5% of women and 2% of men, and is associated with low self-esteem, prior sexual or physical abuse, or negative home environments. There are notable patterns that doctors have discovered among binge eaters:

  • They tend to eat fast – to the point where there isn’t a moment when the mouth is empty. They tend to eat alone – either at night, when everyone else is asleep, or during the day, when loved ones are at work or school – because they often feel embarrassed about how much they eat.
  • They tend to eat even when they’re not physically hungry. That’s why occasionally chowing down on a large plate of pasta after a workout doesn’t count as bingeing – the urge to binge comes from something else. Many bingers eat to satisfy hurt feelings or ease inner pain.
  • They tend to feel absolutely disgusted with themselves after they finish eating – to the point of feeling shame or distress. They know they need help, but feel powerless to seek it.

Eating Your Emotions

Where does all that hunger come from? Those who binge often eat their feelings, using food as medicine for stress and depression. And it may be hard to realize when that person is you.

Why does food “work” as a form of relief? The hypothalamus, the site of the satiety center, is also the part of the brain where the mind and body connect through hormones, which talk to the rest of your body. Various brain chemicals that are responsible for our emotions also provide a foundation for why and what we eat at certain times. These chemicals include serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, GABA, and nitric oxide. Different levels lead to different emotions and also cravings for different types of food:

  • Angry? You may crave tough foods, like meat, or hard and crunchy foods, like popcorn or peanut brittle.
  • Depressed? You may crave sweet, sugary foods, which includes candy or chocolate to boost energizing serotonin levels.
  • Anxious? You may find yourself savoring soft and sweet foods like ice cream.
  • Stressed? You may desire that salty bag of chips to get through the day.
  • Lonely? Or sexually frustrated? You may find solace in bulky, fill-you-up foods, like crackers and pasta.
  • Jealous? This tricky emotion may send you craving anything and everything you can get your hands on.

Conquering Your Emotions and Controlling Your Diet

Trying to find ways to break the emotional cycle? Remember the following tips to become a more mindful eater. If you have trouble stopping and feel distress and anxiety about food, don't hesitate to seek the help of a medical professional.

  • De-stress With Endorphins: Endorphins are brain chemicals that elevate mood and provide energy. Your brain releases these happy chemicals during exercise. Endorphins are also elevated when you’re excited, when you consume spicy foods, and when you’re making love. Instead of eating a truckload of carbs when you’re feeling down, why not go for a walk around the block with your dog?
  • Make Foods Work in Your Favor: Different foods have different effects on your stomach, your blood, and your brain. For example, turkey contains tryptophan, which increases serotonin levels, which improves your mood, combats depression, and helps you resist cravings for simple carbs. Another example, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, have been shown to combat depression and boost mood. Read up on the Worry Cure Diet to learn more about mood-improving diet foods to keep you slim.
  • Savor the Flavor: If you’re going to eat something that’s bad for you, don’t just inhale it. Enjoy it. Savor it. Roll it around in your mouth. It’s okay to eat bad foods every once in awhile. However, don’t over do it by eating the whole bag of cookies. Try a piece of dark chocolate, 70% cocoa content or higher, as a way to reward yourself.
  • Go to Sleep: Getting enough sleep keeps you thin. When your body doesn’t get the seven to eight hours of sleep it needs every night to get rejuvenated, it finds other ways to compensate for those tired neurons not secreting the normal amounts of serotonin or dopamine. How? Your body may start craving sugary foods that will trigger an immediate release of serotonin and dopamine. For more on how proper sleep can lead to weight loss, read 4 Steps to Lose Weight While You Sleep.

Blog written by Mehmet Oz, MD
America’s Doctor and three-time Daytime Emmy Award-winning host of the Daytime Emmy-winning The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Oz is also...