If you are the type who tries to eat your way out of depression, this column could make you healthier.
Doughnuts for depression?
Beyond providing important vitamins, minerals and nutrients, food can bring comfort and joy. It can rekindle memories and be used to celebrate special occasions. After all, what would a birthday celebration be without cake? On the other end of the spectrum, food can also be used as a means to soothe or suppress negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger and loneliness. When emotions, either good or bad, instead of hunger start to guide eating patterns, it can quickly lead to overeating and weight gain.
We've all experienced emotional eating - or comfort eating - at some point in our lives, but problems arise when it becomes a common occurrence. That's because it usually involves unhealthy food that is high in sugar, salt, fat and calories, and that offers little in the way of nutrition. It is often characterised by large portion sizes and late-night bingeing, regardless of how hungry you may or may not be.
If you find yourself reaching for unhealthy fare when the going gets tough, you're not alone. Researchers from Cornell University in the US recruited volunteers to watch one of two movies - the first was upbeat and funny and the other was sad and depressing - offering both groups salty, buttery popcorn and fresh, seedless grapes. Not surprisingly, viewers of the sad movie ate 36 per cent more buttery popcorn than those watching the upbeat movie. Viewers of the happy movie ate both snacks, but preferred the fruit to the buttery popcorn.
The good news is there are some easy strategies you can use to regain control over emotional eating. The first and most important step is learning to distinguish between true feelings of hunger and cravings. Comfort eating is triggered by thoughts and feelings and is a psychological need rather than a physical one. Try to recognise feelings of physical hunger, such as a rumbling stomach, as opposed to the urge to eat for eatings' sake. Often, emotional eating is linked to a specific food, like chocolate, whereas true hunger can be satisfied by a proper meal or a healthy snack.
Keeping a food journal is a useful tool in identifying situations or feelings that cause you to overeat for emotional reasons. The simple concept of jotting down what you eat, when you eat it, and how you're feeling at the time can enable you to pinpoint triggers. Once you are aware of these triggers, you will be better equipped to avoid situations that cause you to binge. Look for other ways to respond to your emotions other than eating. Think of activities that are just as appealing to you and provide a sense of comfort and relief. Exercise is the ideal alternative to raiding the refrigerator. Not only is it a natural mood booster, it relieves stress and burns calories in the process.
When you feel a craving coming on, make a conscious effort to reach for something healthy. The same study that found sad movie viewers ate more popcorn also discovered that when nutritional information was present, consumers significantly curbed their intake of junk food. Reading nutrition labels and opting for smaller portions can be a healthier way to deal with the urge to overindulge. Combating emotional eating takes time and patience. Learn from your experiences and make a game plan.
Focus on positive changes that make you feel good about yourself. If emotional eating is still interfering with your normal day-to-day activities, it may be useful to seek the help of a health professional.