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Emotional Eating Myths Busted

By Susan Albers Bowling, PsyD

Emotional Eating Myths Busted

If you’re an emotional overeater, you may eat to cope with stress and sadness, enhance joy, and bring a sense of comfort. But, over time, overeating causes weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and many other health problems. Here are 15 myths and facts about emotional eating that will help you take a new look at how you’re coping with the stressors, disappointments and other emotions in life

1. Eating is a “feel good” activity

TRUE: But you only get a three-minute fix. A study in the Journal of Appetite tested how long the “feel good” feeling from chocolate lasts. It turns out that comfort and bliss only last 3 minutes. 3 minutes! Isn’t it a surprise how short-lived comfort eating can be?

2. Feeling guilty for eating cake affects weight loss

TRUE: Cake plus guilt equals less weight loss. Cake is a comfort food that’s often associated with guilt and worry or pleasure and enjoyment. In one study, dieters who associated cake with “guilt” vs. “celebration” were less likely to lose weight. Dieters who felt positive feelings, such as celebration with cake as a comfort food were more likely to lose weight. Guilt can derail your efforts.

3. Everyone struggles with the same cravings

FALSE: Comfort foods aren’t cross-cultural. Think chocolate is the global go-to feel-better food? It’s not. People in different countries crave comfort from different foods. In Japan, miso soup, okayu (rice porridge that’s served when children are sick), and ramen are popular comfort foods. In India, it’s samosas, potato-stuffed crisps served with spicy green chutney. In Italy, it’s fresh pasta or potato gnocchi.

4. Men and women crave different comfort foods

TRUE: There’s a gender difference. Research shows males prefer warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods (think steak, casseroles, and soup), while females prefer snack foods (think chocolate and ice cream).

5. We crave familiar comfort foods

TRUE: We choose comfort foods out of habit. When we’re stressed out, we revert back to the foods we frequently eat—healthy or not. Researchers who followed the eating habits of college students during midterm exams noted that during peak stress times, students were more likely to choose the snacks they eat most frequently. It takes less thought and effort to choose familiar foods.

6. Hormones trigger chocolate cravings

FALSE: PMS doesn’t trigger hormonal chocolate cravings. You may say your hormones make you crave chocolate during that time of the month, but 80 percent of menopausal women still report chocolate cravings despite no longer having cycles. Experts believe our desire for comfort combined with stress about our cycle compels us to turn to a culturally reinforced way of coping. In other words, we expect that chocolate will help, so we begin to crave it, not because hormones are driving us to it.

7. Ritual is comforting.

TRUE: Ritual creates comfort and enjoyment. Do you eat comfort foods in a certain way? For example, do you eat the icing off your cupcake first or cut your peanut butter sandwich in half every time? Most of us have particular ways in which we eat food. And there’s science behind the good feelings we derive from these little rituals. A study in the journal Psychological Science discovered that not only did eaters who made a ritual out of unwrapping and slowing breaking pieces of a chocolate bar feel those good comfort feelings; they enjoyed the chocolate more than the folks who simply unwrapped and ate the chocolate.

8. Eating is emotion

TRUE: It’s not just the taste. We often think that comfort foods taste good because of how good they taste, or how good eating feels. Ironically, researchers in the Journal of Clinical Investigation were able to elicit those same feelings and memories by injecting a fat-based solution right into the participants’ stomachs.Then, the researchers induced sadness and found that the group who received the fat-based solution actually had a reduced brain response of sadness on MRI studies than the group that received the dummy or placebo solution. Those injected with the “comfort” solution just didn’t feel as bad. This compelled the researchers to conclude that something biological is actually triggered in the stomach that sends signals to the brain to make us feel good.

9. Happy people overeat too

TRUE: Both good and bad feelings trigger emotional eating. Even good feelings bring on comfort-food cravings, according to the journal In fact, happier people are more likely to overeat as compared to unhappy people—a fact that’s not well-known.

10. Chicken soup is good company

TRUE: Chicken soup is comforting and reduces feelings of loneliness. Here’s why: A study in Psychological Science found that people who ate chicken noodle soup felt less lonely while eating it; there were even able to come up with more relational words about their feelings while eating it. In other words, if you eat the soup while talking to someone, you’re more successful in connecting with them. Comfort foods = comforting feelings = comfort around others.

11. We always want comfort food

TRUE: Comfort is desired to the end. Just look at the typical “last meals” ordered by inmates on death row: 67 % chose fried foods, 66% picked desserts. Honestly, is anyone surprised they want calorie-dense comfort foods?

12. Familiar foods are comforting far from home

TRUE: A study of students studying abroad in England found that eating familiar comfort foods provided emotional support, bringing a “taste of home” comfort. Live abroad for long and researchers caution you’ll eventually begin to crave the new foods in your acculturated diet the same way you craved the comfort foods of your native land.

13. Money does’t matter when it comes to comfort foods

FALSE: Kraft macaroni is no comfort for those on public assistance. Middle income folks who don’t struggle with paying for food often list the popular Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner as a comfort food. But it’s quite the opposite for those who aren’t sure how they’ll pay for their next meal. This cheesy boxed meal is so frequently donated to food pantries it risks becoming a monotonous staple for recipients, reinforcing their lack of economic power and choice in their meals.

14. Dieters are the most prone to comfort eating

TRUE: Dieters are most prone to emotional eating. Researchers believe that people who are at risk for emotional eating during stress have a high body mass index (BMI), express “low” or “moody” feelings and have high cortisol reactivity (your body’s reaction to stress). But research shows that trying to pull back and practice restraint typically backfires!.

15. Comfort is dose dependent

True! When emotional eaters were given chocolate, those who had a low dose (about one-ninth of a Hershey’s bar) had no changes in mood. Sadly, it actually took very large quantities of chocolate to make even a dent in mood, and as we learned in #1, it’s a short-lived “feel good” activity!

 Further reading: Eat Fish to Sustain a Healthy Pregnancy

Susan Albers Bowling, PsyD, is a Psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. Her newest book is 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food: Mindfulness Strategies to Cope with Stress and End Emotional Eating.


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