I call this Part I because emotional eating is such a complicated behavior and I’m not sure where to start and stop. (Find Part II here)
But I will start with what relates to me, in the hopes that it will relate to you too. First, if you have the propensity to gorge yourself on food and crave high caloric food, there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s not a problem with your will power or self control. It’s simply evolutionary, and probably genetic. If you must blame someone, blame your ancestors, but understand that they were just keeping themselves alive so you could be born.
Therefore, on one hand binging on junk food may be in our DNA and a biological process that we shouldn’t feel ashamed for. On the other hand, the body is built for balance. Think temperature: too hot and we sweat to cool ourselves and too cold and we shiver to warm ourselves. Our bodies are built for balance.
When the body needs energy it secretes ghrelin (the stomach gremlin hormone as I like to think of it). When the body has enough, it sends the satiety hormone leptin which tells the brain to stop looking for food. Oftentimes when I start gaining weight, I notice my appetite going down. This is probably leptin doing its job. Obesity is associated with leptin resistance (like insulin resistance in Diabetes). Maybe the more we ignore these satiety signals (which in American culture we do often), the less responsive our neurons become to the hormone, the less satiety we feel, and the higher the chance we will become overweight.
So our bodies have mechanisms for balance. But I can assure you the boxes of Pringles and bags of candy I snuck at friends houses as a kid were not out of hunger, the entire meals I eat in front of the tv are simply to keep my mouth busy, and the family sized bags of chips and pretzels, or entire boxes of pop tarts I down in one sitting are simply to calm my nerves, even though my nerves never calm. And here we have the cycle were our emotions override the mechanisms for healthy eating and maybe (I say maybe because I am not a scientist) even leads to leptin resistance which, as the cycle continues, leads to less and less feelings of satiety (and more and more weight gain).
As I said, emotional eating is a complicated issue to tackle. Whether I’m happy, sad, lonely, ashamed, scared, overwhelmed, numb, empty, worrying, angry, bored, tired, stressed – all of these are triggers that make me want to eat.
If you’re an overeater too, it’s important to first identify why. What are the triggers leading you to overeat? Did you identify with any of the feelings I just described? All of them?
Lately, I’ve been struggling with boredom. As we are currently coming out of “quarantine”, boredom has been a big theme for me the last several months. I am also just starting some online classes, one of them being anatomy and physiology. And the chemistry section we are in at the moment is boring the living hell out of me. I am often forced to stay up late to study even though I should be in bed, and the combined emotions of boredom from the material, tiredness, anxiety, and stress are prime context for me to binge on food.
But it’s more than that. I cannot sit in front of the tv without needing to be eating at the same time. The second I sit down the cravings hit (this might be a conditioned response, which I get into in another article). Even though tv is supposed to serve as entertainment, it is the mindless form that isn’t truly stimulating. I still find myself bored.
If I am bored pacing around the house looking for something to do, nine times out of ten that pacing will lead me to the kitchen on autopilot.
So I’ve just identified a major trigger, and some contexts that trigger will occur in. Do I avoid those contexts altogether? Well I can’t just drop out of my class because it’s making me fat. I can reduce the amount of tv I watch, but there are times when that mindless entertainment helps me cope with the stress of the day, and my binging in boredom is never as bad as binging from stress.
Combating boredom isn’t as simple as filling up my schedule, because then I will be stressed, tired, and overwhelmed which won’t do me any good either. Instead, I am trying to find ways to become more engaged with my daily activities. Instead of driving with the radio turned to the same old pop song I’ve heard a million times, maybe I can plan ahead of time to find a podcast on a topic that makes me excited. I’ve found one of my favorite Netflix binge series (The Last Kingdom) is on Audible and enjoy listening to the story while walking or getting ready in the morning. During class, I ask questions that spark my curiosity. No, I don’t give a damn about stupid simple squamous cell epithelial tissue vs stratified squamous cell epithelial tissue vs psuedostratified columnar epithelial tissue, but isn’t squamous cell related to a type of skin cancer? What makes that type of skin cancer different than melanoma, which is much more deadly. Oh, something is deadly? Now it has my attention.
Finding new ways to engage with my daily activities rather than go through them mindlessly and apathetically is one way I am combating one aspect of my emotional eating tendencies. I still have a lot of work to do.