How Your Brain Triggers Emotional Eating (And How to Control It)

Emotional eating makes you eat more when you are under stress even though you are not really hungry. Occasional snacking is one thing, but if you are emotional eating all the time, then you might end up developing health issues such as obesity.

Emotional eating turns into a habit after some time, and it becomes an endless cycle of overeating you can’t seem to escape no matter how hard you try.

But there are ways to overcome this habit, and all it requires is determination and knowledge about what really causes it to develop in the first place.

How Your Mind Triggers Emotional Eating and How to Control It

1. Understanding Hormones and Cravings

Human behavior is often associated with hormones that trigger different actions. There are many hormones that can make a person indulge in emotional eating. The reason for this is because hormones control emotions and feelings, so it is not easy to not follow their will. The following are some hormones that can go rogue and cause you to eat under emotional stress.

a) Cortisol

This hormone is released by our body under stress, and it causes the body to activate its fight or flight response, which is intended to avoid a dangerous situation. Through this instinctive response, our body starts to process food differently than it would usually.

Under the influence of cortisol, our body craves foods that are high in carbohydrates and not very healthy but are easy to process. According to clinical psychologist Susan Albers, you may feel the need to eat sugary, high fat, and salty foods when you are under stress due to a particular situation.

b) Dopamine

Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter found in our body’s nervous system. It causes our brain to feel good when it performs a specific action. It is triggered when you eat unhealthy foods such as fast food or comfort food. When you eat these foods, your brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine as a reward mechanism.

As a result, you end up craving this type of food in order to get that dopamine rush. It almost turns into an addiction to your brain, and it causes it to feel high every time you eat junk food. Although the high is clearly not as intense as the one produced by drugs, it still causes your brain to crave more and more food.

c) Serotonin

Serotonin is a feel-good hormone that produces a sensation of happiness, and the absence of this hormone can cause you to feel sad and unhappy. You can see why our body craves this hormone so much as lack of serotonin is even linked with depression.

But the catch is that serotonin needs some raw materials to be produced by the body, and one of these materials is an amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in foods such as cheese, turkey, and chocolate.

Carbohydrates also increase the levels of serotonin, and that is why people often crave foods such as cheese, burgers, and fries when they are sad. But these foods are not healthy, and the spike of serotonin they cause is temporary and causes you to crave these foods over and over again. We hope that now you get why you never crave lettuce but can’t get enough of burgers and fries.

2. Why does the brain trigger emotional eating?

There are infinite reasons for emotional eating, so in order to understand where they stem from, we must first know what causes them in the first place.

Let’s begin by highlighting some things that trigger emotional eating in most people. The following are some possible triggers of emotional eating:

a) Nostalgia

Eating habits from your past, especially from your childhood, may become cravings when you are sad as an adult. This is because foods you ate and loved as a child may give you a sense of security and safety.

b) Boredom

We know it sounds funny when you see that boredom can also trigger emotional eating, but it’s true. When you are bored, sometimes you may turn to food to pass the time.

c) Social Pressure

You’re having a bad day, and your friend offers you a piece of pie or some other unhealthy and needless snack. It may be a sweet gesture, but you might end up craving these foods more often in the future, and before you know it, you are addicted to them in a way.

d) Tiredness

When your body feels tired, it might think it is due to lack of food so it triggers the hunger response. But you may be tired due to a number of other factors, like working late at night and not getting proper sleep.

When it is all said and done, emotional eating may be caused by more complicated problems than the ones we mentioned above. During childhood, children who see others around them eating large quantities of food may end up developing emotional eating habits as adults.

This kind of eating habit is especially hard to overcome. Some people feel confused about how to process their emotions so they end up indulging themselves in certain comfort foods to feel better.

But what this coping mechanism does is prevent you from actually dealing with your emotions.

That is why it is important to deal with your emotional problems instead of finding alternatives to avoid them.

3. Recognizing the Difference Between Real Hunger and Emotional Hunger

When you are in a bad state emotionally, you may confuse real hunger with cravings caused by emotional stress. If you can differentiate real hunger from cravings, it can be helpful in avoiding emotional eating.

So, here are some things you should always look for:

a) Onset of Hunger

When you are actually hungry, you don’t start feeling hungry all of a sudden. The feeling of hunger gradually increases. Emotional hunger, on the other hand, comes on suddenly in the form of cravings.

A good way to tell if the hunger you are experiencing is real or emotional is to check when you ate last time. If you feel hungry and you just ate a few hours ago, it is probably emotional hunger.

b) Feelings of Hunger

Real physical hunger has some telltale signs such as a growling belly or feeling tired. Emotional hunger is not like that. It is mostly in your head. You end up thinking about food you’d like to eat, and just like that your brain starts to crave it.

c) Type of Food

If you are actually hungry, chances are you won’t be too picky when it comes to food choice. The actual feeling of hunger only wants you to fill your stomach as soon as possible with whatever you have available.

Emotional hunger is nothing like that. You will feel hungry for something specific like pizza or a burger, and that is how you can tell it is emotional.

d) Attention

When you are eating out of comfort, like for example during a movie, you might not pay attention to how much you are eating. During a film, you can eat a whole bag of chips and not even realize it.

Real hunger stops when you are full and you have enough food in your belly to fuel your body.

e) After Effects

When you are actually hungry, you will feel a sense of fulfillment once you have eaten. However, that is not the case with emotional hunger as you might regret eating whatever you ate out of emotion.

4. Ways to Control Emotional Eating

No matter how much you eat when you are stressed or emotional, you will still feel hungry. So here are some things you can try to overcome emotional eating.

 a) Exercise

If you start to exercise, you will begin to release the stress in a healthier way rather than using food to relieve it.

b) Keep a food journal

The thing about emotional eating is that you eat and then forget about what you ate. So, if you are keeping track of what you are eating, you will know if you are eating a certain food as a craving or not. Moreover, this will also help you to eat healthy because you will be able to keep any unhealthy food items out of your diet.

c) Meditate

Meditating helps calm your breathing and relaxes you, and it is a great stress relieving alternative for people who eat out of emotion.

d) Find alternative methods

Try a hobby to channel your energy into. Instead of eating, you can try reading, playing video games or sports, or learning new skills.

e) Get Help

Overeating may be due to an eating disorder, and so is emotional eating sometimes. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist or a health professional to help you out with your emotional eating if you feel it’s out of your control.

Final Thoughts

Emotional eating is not a healthy habit as it can cause weight gain and increase anxiety. However, with the help of this article, you can find out what triggers it and avoid these triggers. We hope this article was able to help you or someone you know in overcoming emotional eating.