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Fight or Flight: Emotional Eating

Fight or Flight: Emotional Eating


A new season brings new opportunities and as quickly as summer came, it’s now on its way out. As Fall creeps its way in, we are faced with new routines, new schedules, and new responsibilities, which drops additional stress upon our already busy and demanding lives. Although we know how helpful exercise, meditation, and journaling can be to manage stress and our emotions, in a pinch, one of our easiest and go-to methods of relief is to reach for food. This is, my friends, what we call emotional eating, and it is a common habit most of us have found ourselves practicing.

Emotional eating is the act of eating when feeling stressed and seeking comfort. When we are faced with worrying and negative emotions, our sympathetic nervous system, better known as “fight or flight” takes over, which increases the amount of cortisol in our bodies to help us fight or flee from a threatening situation, whether real (slamming on your breaks to avoid a crash) or imaginary (getting an angry email from your boss). Cortisol is a stress-response hormone that triggers cravings for pleasure, which usually comes in the form of highly sweet and salty treats.

Although our conscious mind may tell us that going for a run or listening to a guided meditation may be helpful, often this isn’t our first preference in times of heightened emotions. We typically turn to food as comfort because eating stimulates the release of dopamine, which is a feel-good neurotransmitter that soothes us and makes us feel happy.

While eating in times of stress is not necessarily a bad thing, if it interferes with your health and physique goals, it may be time to reevaluate your response to stress and consider the options below.

  1. Identify your emotions– Take some time to reflect on your feelings and what is driving you to reach for a snack. Ask yourself, Am I truly hungry? Or am I looking to feed another emotion? If you are actually hungry, go ahead and grab a balanced meal or snack. If not, try to identify the feeling behind the craving. Are you lonely? Bored? Stress? Anxious? Excited? Identifying these emotions is a powerful first step in overcoming cravings to dive head-first into a bag of Cheetos.
  1. Grab a pen and paper– Once you have shed light on the underlying emotion driving you to the snack drawer, spend a few minutes writing about how you feel. It can be therapeutic to write about what bothers you and many times, just venting on paper about your boss, your spouse, or your coworkers can provide the comfort you’re seeking. Even if journaling doesn’t scratch that emotional itch, it can be a great strategy for reflecting and getting to know your true feelings.
  1. Find an alternative management technique- Once you know what emotions and feelings are causing temptation, experiment with different coping mechanisms. For example, if you are eating out of loneliness, plan a phone or coffee date with a pal. If the kitchen calls when you’re stressed, try taking a 10-minute walk or finding a calming activity like drawing or sketching. Play around with a bunch of strategies to find what works to soothe your bothersome emotions.
  1. Set yourself up for success- Assess your environment and remove temptation where you can. Keep certain sweets out of the house or have a family member hide them in a drawer that you don’t use if the desire is difficult to resist. Keep a stash of healthier alternatives available like fresh fruit for when a sweet tooth hits or cut-up veggies for those times you want something crunchy. Therefore, even if you do reach for a snack to help relieve negative emotions, you’ll be filling up with nutritious foods.
  1. Be gentle with yourself– Even with the best of intentions, emotional eating is sure to rear its ugly head from time to time. When this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Being hard and punishing yourself only brings about more negativity, which can exacerbate the spiral of emotional eating, leading you right back to where you started. Be kind to yourself, get right back on track, and remember, tomorrow is a brand-new day!

If you’re feeling that despite your best efforts, stress and the negative effects that come with it are at an all-time high, reach out to Merritt Clubs Nutrition & Wellness team. We are here to help you learn to incorporate stress management techniques, as well as implementing practices for emotional wellness. Reach out to Sherri Lively at slively@merrittclubs.com for more information or to schedule a complimentary Wellness Assessment with one of our Health Coaches.