Tacoma Christian Counselor
How often do you turn to emotional eating when under pressure, pushed against a deadline, or upon hearing bad news? According to the American Psychological Association, you are not alone. An estimated 38% of Americans have eaten out of stress over the course of a month. Almost half of these people have used emotional eating as a coping mechanism weekly.
For those who have emotional eating issues, anxiety and depression is a trigger. However, you can also overeat or eat when you are not hungry as a way to celebrate good news.
If you continue emotional eating behaviors, it can be detrimental to your health. You are causing a possible eating disorder as well as exacerbating other emotions and impacting not only your relationships with family and friends but also your relationship with God.
How our brains reward emotional eating.
Have you ever considered why you eat salty or sweet snacks when stressed? These comfort foods trigger increased chemicals in the brain that help us manage stress and relax.
The brain dumps serotonin, dopamine, and other chemicals when we consume foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. Serotonin leaves us feeling good, like a runner’s high. Dopamine provides temporary pleasure and helps us relax. The brain’s reward system activates, but it also remembers. It adapts to recognize these triggers, prompting you to ingest more sugar, fatty foods, and salt when under pressure.
How do you stop emotional eating and redirect the brain’s reward system without becoming more depressed? When you consume too much-added sugar, your blood sugar level spikes and dips instead of remaining stable. When your blood sugar level is sound, you have more energy and fewer cravings. When blood sugar spikes and dips continuously, as with emotional eating, it can leave you feeling anxious, depressed, tired, and even lightheaded.
When you think this way, ask God for help managing these urges for salt, fatty food, and sugar. God Cares about you and wants the best for you. Overcoming the temptation of emotional eating should be incorporated with Scripture. The first one that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you, do it all for the glory of God.” Your focus can shift when you eat for the glory of God.
Consume protein and healthy fat at every meal to balance your blood sugar. Space your meals out about every three to four hours so that you do not become overly hungry, but your body has a chance to burn the last meal for fuel.
If your last meal was a binge, give yourself time to get hungry and then eat a meal with protein, a portion of healthy fat, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread or sprouted bread will help balance your blood sugar and avoid those spikes. If you happen to overeat, do not focus on the shame, and tomorrow is a new day.
You also have the option to consult a nutritionist for more ideas on taming your diet to avoid emotional eating. Also, keep track of the days you resist emotional eating. Mark an X on the calendar for each day you bypass bingeing or sneaking a sugary or salty snack.
You may find it challenging to break your streak when you have a few successful days. The new habit of recording your successful days may give you pause long enough to distract you from reaching for food when you are not hungry.
The dangers of emotional eating.
Is emotional eating that dangerous? We have all seen movies where the actor consumes a pint of ice cream or a box of truffles in one sitting after a breakup. What about the bowls of candy in offices? We have become conditioned to eat as a coping mechanism for stress.
Yet, emotional eating is dangerous. We are not only training our brains on when to reward us but also harming our physical and emotional health.
The following is a list of the most common conditions and complications that can develop from uncontrolled emotional eating:
- High blood pressure.
- Heart disease.
- Overweight or obesity.
- Type II diabetes.
- High cholesterol.
- Acid reflux and indigestion.
- Low self-esteem and poor body image.
- Uncontrollable cravings.
- Dehydration and dry skin.
- Binge eating.
Emotional eating falls under disordered eating. However, you can develop an eating disorder such as bulimia or binge eating if you engage in the behavior at least twice a week for six months or longer.
How do counselors address emotional eating? Unlike other substance abuse, food is a requirement to live. You cannot stop cold turkey from consuming food, so you must learn to view food as fuel instead of a comfort item. Whatever you do, you do it for the glory of God.
Food was never intended to replace our emotions or our need for God. Often, we engage in emotional eating to keep from feeling our emotions. We eat copious amounts of food to numb our feelings instead of processing that we are sad, angry, or frustrated. If you fail in this process, it is another chance to practice leaning on God.
You may also tell yourself false beliefs that sound true but are not. For example, you may think, “No one wants me or loves me. What does it matter if I overeat? No one cares about me. If they cared, they wouldn’t have left.”
Counseling helps to challenge these beliefs. When you hold on to shame and believe false stories about yourself, your thoughts and emotions follow. In this example, we would feel vulnerable, sad, depressed, and worthless – no wonder we would turn to food to cheer us up.
A counselor can assist you in replacing these negative and self-destructive thoughts with positive affirmations rooted in truth and in who God says you are. For example, when a negative thought comes, you can challenge it by saying, “I am worth the effort to prepare and eat healthy food only when I am hungry. This is because God created me to serve Him, not food.”
Counselors use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as an effective tool to reframe your thoughts and beliefs to change your emotions and behaviors.
You may also find that combining individual and group counseling sessions arm you to fight against emotional eating. In-person and virtual sessions with a counselor are a great way to share your struggles confidentially. Perhaps you emotionally eat because of past trauma. With one-on-one sessions, you can feel free to share in a safe environment and talk about and incorporate your faith.
Group sessions are typically held at a counseling center or online. A mental health professional leads these sessions; you can share with others struggling with emotional eating. This is a fantastic opportunity to bounce strategies off others, offer encouragement, and gain tools to bring God into the situation.
Managing stress is key.
Our brains search for ways to reduce stress in the body. For example, you know you will miss a deadline at work. Your stress level is high, so you decide to take a walk to the corner market.
While there, your brain pushes you to seek out your favorite foods, perhaps ice cream, wrapped chocolates, and soft pretzels. You spend the rest of the day eating these foods, and your brain responds with a cascade of feel-good chemicals to lower cortisol and help you relax.
Since we aim to break the emotional eating habit, we must find other ways to manage stress. Try to get enough sleep each night to lower the cortisol stress hormone and help your circadian rhythm reset.
If you receive enough sleep at night, you can rise an hour earlier to exercise. Try a new workout or activity, or go for a walk, lift weights, or dance. Choose an activity that is challenging but fun. Your goal is to shift your focus away from what worries you to naturally increase those feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
If you are starting, get your doctor’s clearance and choose a low-impact activity. For example, try walking small distances to get started or stream an indoor walking video. Challenge yourself to push a little further each day. Go on walks in nature with God, and make sure he is integrated into everything you do.
“Eating Cereal”, Courtesy of Tamas Pap, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Burger Time”, Courtesy of Szabo Viktor, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smiling Woman”, Courtesy of Jamie Brown, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.