It happens to everyone. A really bad day. A conflict with a colleague. A perceived dig from your significant other. Emotions run high, and the next thing you know, you’re headed for the fridge. Ice cream. Cookies. Mac ‘n cheese. It seems like it makes everything better. Except it really doesn’t.
There’s a term for this behavior – emotional eating – and it can lead to some less-than-great choices. “We turn to comfort foods that are rich in fat or sugar,” says Sodexo’s Regional Dietitian and Wellness Manager Cristina Caro, RDN. “Your body wants quick energy so it can produce the chemicals that provide a calming effect.”
We often confuse physical and emotional hunger, so it’s important to understand if you’re experiencing real hunger, or if your emotions are driving your cravings. According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, physical hunger comes on gradually and you’re open to eating different foods. Once you’re full, you stop eating and you don’t feel guilty about it. Conversely, emotional hunger hits you suddenly, but you don’t know what you want to eat. Whatever you eat, it doesn’t make you feel full, but you do feel regret.
Food can never satisfy emotional hunger. “We often subconsciously try to use physical fullness as a surrogate for emotional fullness,” Caro says. She notes that stress brings on emotional eating because it causes cortisol levels to peak, depleting Vitamin B and influencing blood sugar levels. “It makes your fight or flight instincts kick in and your body prepares in case you have to run, which makes you want more sugar.”
Caro recommends making comfort food as healthy as possible. “Saying don’t eat comfort food is unrealistic. There are reasons why your body is asking for it.” If you’re craving something sweet, good choices provide fiber and/or B vitamins, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, or nut butter. If you really want chocolate, dark chocolate is a better choice, and whole-fruit sorbet is just as satisfying as ice cream. Fiber-rich foods also help regulate your blood sugar, stabilizing both your body and emotions. These food choices are not only better for your health, but they also put you in control. Rather than succumbing to sugars and fats, you’re standing up for yourself and increasing your necessary vitamins.
Caro says the best way to manage emotional eating is not to respond to it, but to understand and control it. Maintaining a balanced diet plays a major role, because you’ll have fewer nutritional deficiencies. “You can think back to your last meal, see what nutrients are missing and eat foods that have them. It’s much better to fill in, rather than fill up.”