Food and Emotions

By Bolatito Fatusin.

Is there a link between food and our emotions?

Food is basically meant to sustain life. However, sometimes, we feed our feelings rather than our bodies. Have you ever given yourself a treat after successfully completing a task? I guess you would answer affirmatively. Similarly, we eat and share food to express love, gratitude and for social connectedness especially during joyous occasions or social gatherings.

Even in our down moments, we might crave a particular food to calm the nerves? These examples attest to the fact that human beings are very much influenced by emotions in their eating behaviours. How we feel sometimes determine our food choice, the quantity and frequency of eating.

Being able to unravel the link between our eating habits (choices, quantity and frequency) and emotions could be the first step towards getting rid of that pot belly or excessive weight. We will be taking a step further from our last article on healthy eating, to explore the connection between food, our thoughts and emotions and provide some helpful tips to minimize emotional eating.

Emotion is often used interchangeably with mood although there are few differences. Moods tend to last longer while an emotion may only last a few minutes. Mood may also be diffuse while emotion is about something more specific. As both influence eating habits, we will use the terms interchangeably.

What is the connection between emotions and food?

Studies have shown that both negative and positive emotions have a bidirectional relationship with food intake. In a study by Patel and Schlundt, meals eaten during positive or negative mood were significantly larger than meals eaten in a neutral mood. Another study which investigated the relationship between different emotions and amount of food intake found that higher food consumption was reported during boredom, depression and fatigue and lower food intake was reported during fear, tension and pain. (1)

Similarly, in a study which explored the differential impact of anger, fear, sadness and joy on food consumption, subjects reported experiencing higher levels of hunger during anger and joy than during fear and sadness. They also reported that during anger there was an increase of impulsive eating (fast, irregular and careless eating directed at any food type available), and that during joyful moods there was an increase of hedonic eating. In other words, the tendency to eat because of the pleasant taste of the food. (2)

Emotions may influence food intake through stimulation of appetite and not necessarily hunger. Hunger is the physical need for food caused by contraction of the stomach muscular walls. Apetite, however, is the desire for food stimulated by the thought, smell and sight of food. It is possible to have appetite for a certain food even when physically full. This emotional longing for food in the absence of hunger is called a craving.

Why do we crave certain foods or indulge in emotional eating?

Psychological needs: Scientific studies have demonstrated the link between the desire for a specific food and the need for certain micronutrients, especially those used by the body to regulate our emotions or physical conditions. An example is a craving for chocolate.

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that our brain generates when we are feeling romantic. Craving for chocolate may be the body’s way of expressing insecurity or loneliness. Another prime example is the craving for carbohydrates while going through a prolonged physical or emotional stress. However, the reason for this connection is still a grey area in research. Another perspective is that our bodies respond to a prolonged stress by releasing cortisol from the adrenal gland.

This hormone stimulates hunger and increases the cravings for carbohydrates which have chemical properties to soothe and relax us. Indeed both acute and chronic stresses are related to maintenance of obesity and as well with relapse. In a different view, focusing mental energy on food may shift our attention from the impact of the stressor and provides a temporary relief.

Boredom or feelings of emptiness. Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.

Childhood habits. Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom.

Social influences. Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.

Why would craving food be dangerous?

Emotional eating manifests as persistent cravings for certain foods, most often, high calorie containing foods. Consumption of highly refined carbohydrates can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

In addition to the physical health risks, diets with a high glycaemic index and load (eg, diets containing high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars) may also have a detrimental effect on psychological well -being. Clinical studies have also shown potential causal effects of refined carbohydrates on mood; experimental exposure to diets with a high glycemic load in controlled settings increases depressive symptoms in healthy volunteers, with a moderately large effect.

Emotional eating in response to stress would rather compound the problem than solve it. It disrupts efforts to learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions. This leads to a harder time controlling your weight, and you may feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings.

Are you an emotional eater?
  • Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
  • Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
  • Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

If you answer yes to most of the above questions, you may need to consider a change. Why? Emotional hunger can’t be satisfied with food. Eating may feel good in the given moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating will still linger making one feel worse than before because of the unnecessary calories that were consumed.

Identifying emotional hunger
  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It feels overwhelming and urgent making you scramble for food. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat is not so compelling as to demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
  • Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole plate of ‘eba’ (cassava meal) or rice without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
  • Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
  • Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Tips on how to break emotional eating.
  • Identify your emotional eating triggers: The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is identifying your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions as earlier stated.
  • Keep an emotional eating diary: One of the best ways to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary. Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort food, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward.  
  • Observe the emerging pattern: Were you with a particular person or in a social gathering (Owanbe)?
  • Identify healthier ways to feed your feelings: In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally.
Alternatives to emotional eating
  • If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better.
  • If you’re anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favorite song or taking a brisk walk.
  • If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea or fruits.
  • If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy.
  • When craving strikes, try and delay eating for five minutes, when five minutes lapse, give yourself another five minutes
  • While you are waiting, check in with yourself: How are you feeling, what’s going on with you emotionally,even if you eventually end up eating, you will have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you prepare for a different response next time.
  • Learn to accept your feelings—even the bad ones: When we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.
  • Indulge without overeating by savoring your food: Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating. Try taking a few deep breaths before starting your food, putting your utensils down between bites, and really focusing on the experience of eating. Pay attention to the textures, shapes, colors and smells of your food. How does each mouthful taste? How does it make your body feel?
  • By slowing down in this way, you’ll find you appreciate each bite of food much more. You can even indulge in your favorite foods and feel full on much less. It takes time for the body’s fullness signal to reach your brain, so taking a few moments to consider how you feel after each bite—hungry or satiated—can help you avoid overeating.  
  • Practice mindful eating: Eating while you’re also doing other things—such as watching TV, driving, or playing with your phone—can prevent you from fully enjoying your food. Since your mind is elsewhere, you may not feel satisfied or continue eating even though you’re no longer hungry. Eating more mindfully can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb over-eating.
  • Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits: When you’re physically strong, relaxed, and well rested, you’re better able to handle the challenges that life inevitably throws your way. But when you’re already exhausted and overwhelmed, any little hiccup has the potential to send you off the rails and straight toward a pack of chocolate. Exercise, adequate sleep and other healthy lifestyle habits will help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.
  1. Mehrabian A. Basic dimensions for a general psychological theory: Implications for personality, social, environmental, and developmental studies. Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain; 1980 Jan.
  2. Macht M. Characteristics of eating in anger, fear, sadness and joy. Appetite. 1999 Aug 1;33(1):129-39.

Dr Bola Fatusin is an associate of Lifestyle Champions International. She is a Family Physician at Federal Medical Centre, Gusau, Zamfara state. She is the current education and training sub-group lead of African Family Medicine young doctors movement (Afriwon). She is committed to encouraging lifelong learning among young Family Physicians in Sub-Saharan Africa and coordinates education and training of Family Medicine residents in her workplace.

Bola has a special interest in lifestyle medicine and is a member of the Society of Lifestyle Medicine in Nigeria. She is an advocate of evidence-based lifestyle and natural approaches to managing chronic illnesses. She is an uprising researcher focusing on Family Medicine education and Lifestyle Medicine related issues.

Her works on the role of exercise in depression management and suggesting a framework for Family Medicine training in Sub Saharan African were published in reputable journals. She is a lover of hymns and contemporary gospel music. A strong believer in the power of meditation to maintain physical and mental health. Bola regularly practices mindfulness and spiritual meditation.

1 Comment

  • Michael Adebayo December 1, 2020 12:00 am

    The article is spot on and I want to commend your effort for sharing your knowledge to promote a healthy lifestyle through what is on on our plates…you are what you eat. Mindful eating hmm🤐🤐🤐. Excellent job Dr. Bola

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