Comfort eating is a real phenomenon, and can in many instances make us feel good in the moment without any ill effect. While the occasional consumption of comfort food can be harmless and even positive for our sense of wellbeing, the habit of turning to food for any reason other than fulfilling physiological hunger can become detrimental if it evolves into a coping mechanism.
While the habit of emotional eating—or “stress eating” as it is often referred to—may appear in the eyes of the sufferer to fill an emotional void for a short time, repeated patterns of the behaviour can ultimately lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
Understanding the cause of an individual’s need to self-soothe with food is key to recovery and healing.
The Signs of Emotional Eating
When an individual eats to cope with uncomfortable emotions such as depression, anger, stress, loneliness, or fear, or frequently overconsumes as a self-reward, these behaviours can be categorized as emotional eating (HealthLinkBC, n.d.). In all of these scenarios, the eating is unrelated to true physical hunger, and is most typically associated with junk food cravings triggered by the emotional state in question (HealthLinkBC, n.d.).
Emotional eaters describe feeling a lack of control while they eat, and often experience feelings of guilt following the eating session. If left unchecked, the habit of emotional eating can descend into a binge eating disorder, typically differentiated from emotional eating by the much larger amount of food eaten in a sitting (Anderson, n.d.).
Of course, after nutritionist college, identifying signs of emotional eating in clients is only the first step. It is important that the cause of the individual’s need to self-soothe with food also be discovered and addressed.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Some research on emotional eating has linked the condition to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol that occurs during the body’s fight or flight response to stress (Dryden-Edwards). This stress response can lead to many physiological responses, including an increase in appetite (Dryden-Edwards).
Research has also shown that psychological factors play an important role in an individual’s propensity to stress eat (Ford, Lee, Jeon 2017). Individuals who soothe with food or participate in some form of mindless eating often recount being raised with food used as a reward or punishment, which leads to a complicated relationship with the practice of eating (Ford et al., 2017).
In addition, someone who is an emotional eater may either have a complete absence of a social support system to turn to in times of emotional need, or use food to retreat from social support during times of stress. The sufferer may not have developed other habits for reducing stress, such as exercise, meditation, or relaxation therapy. Making things worse, the weight gain and deterioration in health that can sometimes occur as a result of this eating pattern can lead to increased negative feelings that can trigger the behaviour (Marcin, 2018)—creating a cycle of emotional eating. This vicious cycle, stemming from the deep-rooted psychological triggers for food cravings, can be difficult to break without some form of counselling or other intervention.
How Can a Professional with a Nutrition Diploma Help?
Those who train in a forward-thinking nutritionist school learn the importance of the link between emotion and eating. Programs designed today to bridge the gap between nutrition and counselling fill a need that has long existed for addressing all kinds of issues that may otherwise appear to branch into different fields, such as mental health, addiction, past trauma, and nutrition.
Professionals trained in nutrition, life coaching, and counselling are better equipped to support their clients, backing potential recommendations on nutritional changes with existing research that supports the strong connection between nutrition and an individual’s sense of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
Are you interested in learning about the benefits of earning a nutrition diploma?
Contact Rhodes Wellness College to learn more about the Professional Integrative Nutrition Diploma program!
Anderson, K. (n.d.) Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating of Green Mountain at Fox Run, Medainc.org. Retrieved from: https://www.medainc.org/binge-eating-vs-emotional-eating-whats-the-difference/
Dryden-Edwards, R. (n.d.) Emotional Eating. Retrieved from: https://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/article.htm#emotional_eating_facts
Ford, T., Lee, H., Jeon, M. The emotional eating and negative food relationship experiences of obese and overweight adults. Soc Work Health Care. 2017;56(6):488-504. doi:10.1080/00981389.2017.1301620 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28398148/
HealthLinkBC (n.d.) Emotional Eating. Retrieved from: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/aa145852
Marcin, A. (2018) Emotional Eating: What You Should Know. Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-eating
University of Turku. (2017, August 28). Eating triggers endorphin release in the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 26, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170828102719.htm