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Food addiction is a real problem in our modern society. Many women especially have a lot of guilt and shame around their weight and not being able to “control” their eating. But there are solutions for nagging food cravings and emotional eating that can finally get to the underlying causes of food addiction and help you heal.
The Problem With Food Cravings and Emotional Eating
It’s okay to find pleasure in food at times. In fact, we’re biologically designed to find pleasure in food. Eating is a necessity for survival (obviously!) and nature ensures we continue to seek and eat food by rewarding us with dopamine when we do so. But in some cases, people can become too dependent on food for a dopamine “fix” and food addiction can occur.
Foods most often associated with food addiction are “highly palatable” ones like sugary, salty, and fatty foods (especially the highly processed variety).
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Emotional eating can be really tricky. Food is an unavoidable part of life (we need to eat to survive!) so abstinence isn’t a possibility. Also, food should be enjoyable! But for some people, food can become an addiction. Here are some of the best ways to get to the bottom of emotional eating issues and improve your health.
Deal with Underlying Physiological Issues
While emotions often play a part in food addiction, physical issues can contribute as well. It’s a good idea to start with physical causes since dealing with deficiencies is a good idea for overall health anyway.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
If cravings are caused by a nutrient deficiency or poor diet, making sure to eat lots of micronutrients (found in fruits, vegetables, and grass-fed and pastured animal products) is a great way to address possible deficiencies and improve overall health. If this doesn’t end up being the main cause for you, you still benefit from the healthier diet!
Some medications cause overeating and weight gain which can begin the cycle of emotional eating. It’s often possible to switch to a different medication or a lower dose to reduce or eliminate this side effect. Talk with your prescriber about this.
Our bodies are biologically wired to crave sugary, salty, and fatty foods while we’re under stress (they are high-energy foods after all). But with the amount of chronic stress most of us are dealing with, this survival response can do more harm than good. Reduce stress by making self-care a priority every day. Make time for an exercise class, an hour in the house alone, or anything else that will help you relax and get you back into balance.
Stress is related to hormones in the body (stress triggers the release of cortisol), but other hormonal imbalances can have similar effects. Getting hormones back in balance is important for overall health and can help with food cravings and emotional eating as well. Here are some tips for balancing hormones naturally:
- Eats plenty of healthy fats – The body is not made to eat man-made and highly processed fats. Stick with healthy fats like (unheated) olive oil, coconut oil, olives, avocados, and pastured and grass-fed animal products.
- Reduce caffeine and environmental toxins – These can cause endocrine problems.
- Get plenty of sleep! – While asleep the body I hard at work removing toxins, repairing cells, and creating hormones.
- Exercise the right way – For those with hormone imbalance, it’s best to avoid intense workouts at first, until hormones are back in balance. Gentle exercise like walking and swimming is good.
- Focus on leptin balance – Leptin is the master hormone, so when it’s out of balance, so is everything else.
After following these tips you may also want to continue with a hormone balancing diet.
Change the Mentality Around Food
A lot of experts talk about food addiction and emotional eating in terms of our relationship to food. If we overeat or have emotional eating issues we have a bad relationship with food. But Robb Wolf has a different perspective. In a podcast episode, he explains that food addiction is not about a relationship with food. Wolf explains that focusing on the food aspect (and trying to control it) is not the answer.
Instead, we should figure out the underlying emotional reasons for using food in an addictive way. In this way, people can stop fixating on food and start to heal underlying emotional triggers instead.
Understand the Body
Many people feel profound guilt about emotional eating, eating too much, or being unable to lose weight. But Wolf explains that we need to reframe this. When we look at human history and biology we can understand that the body was designed to seek food and eat when it’s found (in case there isn’t another chance).
In our modern society, this becomes problematic because food is readily available (especially the highly palatable sugary, fatty, and salty foods). But if we think about it, those who are overweight are better suited to survival. They are able to keep some calories on their bodies for famine times. Knowing this we can start to recognize that our bodies are actually great and doing just what they are meant to. The solution then becomes more about working with the body rather than just focusing on restrictions or shaming.
Obviously, a healthy diet is important for overall health but it’s also really important for dealing with food cravings and emotional eating. As mentioned earlier, a high-nutrient diet is a good place to start. Choose real foods from healthy sources like high-quality protein, lots of vegetables, some fruit, and healthy fats. A wide variety of whole foods is the best way to get a good variety of nutrients. Stay away from highly processed, nutrient-poor foods.
After starting a real food diet, you may need to make adjustments based on our own bio-individuality. For example, some people can’t tolerate dairy, legumes, or certain kinds of fruit, etc. Carbs are a component of the diet that people vary wildly on.
As Robb Wolf explained in the above podcast episode, a low-carb diet or ketogenic diet can be amazing for some people and disastrous for others. This is the place where we have to look at research and do some work to figure out how many carbs and what kind of carbs make us feel best.
Nutritionist Stephanie Dodier in another podcast episode explains that carbs play a role in emotional eating but that she recommends different amounts of carbs for different people. Dodier recommends getting to know your body intimately to see what amount of carbohydrates work well for you. Experts generally advise starting with the amount of carbs on a paleo diet and reducing them if necessary.
Make (Healthy) Pleasure a Part of Everyday
Experts agree that it’s okay to use food as pleasure occasionally, as long as it doesn’t end up being your only sense of pleasure. If you feel like you use food exclusively to feel better, it might be time to seek other pleasurable activities. Taking a walk, meditating, spending time with friends, dates with your spouse, spending time alone, and watching your favorite movie are all things you can include in your day and week for “me time.”
Talk With a Trusted Counselor or Therapist
As Robb Wolf explains in the above podcast episode, focusing on the food aspect, when the underlying emotional reason for the addiction isn’t dealt with, is useless. He suggests talking with a therapist to get to the bottom of emotional connections to food.
Emotional Freedom Tapping
Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT) expert Brittany Watkins explains in a podcast episode that so much of what happens with emotional eating happens in the subconscious. EFT can help get to those underlying emotional triggers and heal them. Watkins explains that EFT, though it might look a little strange, is rooted in science.
We store our memories in the hippocampus (which looks a bit like a sponge). We use these memories to make quick decisions about new events in our lives. For example, if as a child you fell and scraped your knee when you rode your bike too fast, you might later retrieve that memory and think “I should slow down.” If you were bitten by a dog as a child, you may keep retrieving that memory whenever dogs are around and develop a fear of them.
EFT accesses those memories and helps to make them less intense. It’s helped me tremendously and I highly recommend giving it a try!
Putting It All Together
It may feel a bit overwhelming to deal with emotional eating habits, but it doesn’t have to be. You can make small changes in your diet and lifestyle as you are able, and seek out additional help from a therapist or other professionals.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Michelle Sands, ND. She is double board certified in Integrative Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine and is also a Board-Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and competitive endurance athlete. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you recognize patterns of emotional eating in your life? How do you deal with food cravings?