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Feeling Down, Weighing Up

1By Dr. Bo Rosenblat

Chief Physician for Dr. Bo’s Diet

Have you ever noticed that you feel hungrier or eat more when things in your life are tough or stressful? While this isn’t the case for everyone, researchers have determined that as many as 4 out of 5 people suffer from or have had periods of emotional eating patterns caused by stress or depression. Emotional eating is simply defined as eating to make yourself feel better. Obviously, we all must eat to survive, and it is normal to choose foods that we enjoy, but emotional eating goes a step further. When our eating is triggered by emotions rather than necessity, we are using the foods we enjoy for comfort, relief, pleasure, and even punishment. Emotional eating often goes hand in hand with depression or extreme or chronic stress.

But which comes first? Do we eat out of sadness and stress—or do we feel stress and sadness because of uncontrolled eating? The answer is both. When we are chronically stressed out, which many of us are, we tend to have higher than normal levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies. Cortisol triggers cravings in the pleasure center of the brain, usually for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods—the indulgences that give us an immediate burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress present in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.

If you find yourself giving in to emotional cravings (giving your body the food you think it desires), you are more than likely creating a cycle of emotionally driven binges that have little to do with actual hunger. For the average dieter, giving in to one or two cravings now and again will not undo all that hard work. However, for an emotional eater, a minor indulgence is usually just the beginning of a slippery slope. For some people watching their weight, “one is better than none” (meaning just a small portion of the food they are craving is enough to put the brakes on a desire to jump ship on their diet). For people who struggle with emotional cravings, though, none is usually better than one, since those cravings can sometimes feel like a runaway train, impossible to control. For emotional eaters, it’s like that tagline for Pringles: “Once you pop you can’t stop!”

Since we tend to indulge in starch-carbohydrate and sugary snacks, the cycle often continues after the initial insulin spike that we get. The pleasure we get from these types of foods is almost immediate, and the low we feel afterward comes pretty rapidly as well. This is why you may have experienced cravings for salty/sweet/salty/sweet—never feeling satisfied although you’ve certainly had more than your fill calorically. These overindulgences and binges are what lead us to feelings of guilt, loss of control, and, in more extreme cases, self-loathing, causing further stress and depression.

While there is no quick fix to eradicate these behaviors, there are steps that you can take to prevent the stress in your life from showing up on your waist:

Know Your Hunger. Knowing the difference between physical hunger and emotional craving is crucial. Physical hunger is to address a lack of energy. Emotional craving is the need to satisfy an emotional desire for food. While the two can very easily be mistaken for one another, there are clear differences when you know what to look for. Physical hunger comes on gradually and one can usually wait some time before eating. Emotional cravings tend to come on suddenly and bring with them the need for immediate satisfaction. With emotional cravings, one likely has specific food cravings, while physical hunger can be satisfied by a number of food options that sound appealing. Another main distinction is that while physical hunger is satisfied by a snack or meal, emotional cravings are not, despite the amount of food consumed.

Tip: Each time you feel the desire to eat, ask yourself, “Is this real hunger, or am I feeding my emotions?” Creating mindfulness around any type of eating is the first step to discovering whether you are reaching for food in times of actual hunger. Even if you truly believe your hunger to be physical, take ten minutes to create enough space to evaluate the situation further.

Feed Your Feelings, Not Your Stomach. Instead of giving in to a food craving, you can start retraining your brain to derive satisfaction and pleasure from non-caloric activities. Always take yourself away from the food source (usually the kitchen) and try doing something else that will take up at least the ten minutes you have allotted to determine your type of hunger. Since eating is a physical activity, it is best to replace the eating with another physical activity. For example, keep your hands occupied by doing a crossword puzzle or painting your nails. Other options include walking around the block or reading a chapter in a book. The key is to recreate calming activities that are healthy as opposed to unhealthy. Social activities are also proven to be very effective. Instead of “artificial friendships” often found online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), ditch the online sites and pick up the phone and call someone who makes you feel good. You don’t have to talk about the thing that’s bothering you; simply connecting with a good friend who makes you laugh or feel at ease is enough to lift your spirits and take your mind off of food.

Tip: Try drinking at least 8 ounces of water or another no-calorie natural beverage while you wait out your 10 minutes. Hot herbal tea, which takes a long time to drink, has restorative properties and is calming. Filling yourself up (calorie-free) tends to work very well in tandem with distracting yourself when trying to beat a binge.

You Must Feel to Heal. It’s easy to think that your out-of-control eating is causing you to feel out of control. While your binges probably aren’t helping the matter, there is likely a deep underlying cause to your emotional eating. Instead of stuffing the emotional void with food or soothing the pain or stress you feel by indulging, get in touch with what’s really fueling your need to eat. Sometimes the answer isn’t easy to find. Try journaling when you feel the urge to emotionally eat; this can help you uncover patterns that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. A particular person, place, or topic may emerge as a recurring theme. Group talk therapy can also be a great source of strength and support. Simply hearing stories similar to your own can help give you the drive to work past these struggles. We tend to think that nobody except ourselves struggles with food or emotions, which is far from the truth.

Tip: When trying to determine a cause and effect, look back into your past to determine when and why you started gaining weight. It may not seem obvious at first, but if you gained a lot of weight at certain points in your life, then take a closer look at what was happening for you around that time. Successes, failures, transitions, and traumas can all play a significant role in shaping your relationship, past and present, with food. Remember, it’s not just the feedings that are making you gain weight, it’s the feelings.

Finally, if you are seeking professional help for your weight-management goals, it is crucial to distinguish between weight loss and weight management. For short-term weight loss, most diet programs work well and are fine as long as the approach is not unhealthy. However, for long-term weight management, it is important to find a solution that helps with both the symptom (the excess weight) and the underlying contributing factors that created it—for example, the psychological component (emotional overeating) and possibly the medical component (metabolic dysfunction). v

Dr. Bo Rosenblat is a board-certified medical doctor and chief physician of Dr. Bo’s Diet Center, with office locations in Hewlett and Manhasset. For more information about Dr. Bo’s Diet program, please call 516-284-8248 or visit

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Posted by on June 19, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.