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How to overcome "Emotional Eating"

Updated: Aug 31

It is the question that is at the heart of it all. Isn’t it really? They can give you dozens of diets that “work” and even some that will keep you full in the process… But when the sun goes down and the events of the day give rise to countless feelings that strike the switch for those cravings for something sweet or something salty… I promise you, even though you’re not the least bit hungry, no diet in the world will make a difference in you finding your success with food if you’re not at first addressing this underlying issue.

It is a hard pill to swallow, I know! But the reason that I write this for you today is because of the countless times that I have sat in my office across from someone who cannot successfully execute their goals with nutrition (even though I believe they truly want to) because of something deeper that is holding them back.

How Emotional Eating Works

If you have read some of my other blog posts such as “How Vitamin D Affects Mental Health” then you know that a lot of this starts in the cells of our brain – our neurons. Neurons are unlike our other circular cells in the body in that they have a “head” and a “tail” to pass signals from one cell to the next.

A signal such as “happiness” or “pleasure” is released from the tail of one neuron and received by the head of the next neuron. What happens in between these cells in the exchange of a signal (that must be passed on in order to be perceived by our consciousness) is VITAL in ensuring that we feel the way that we need to and WANT TO!!!

The intercellular space between neurons is complex. There are a number of things like neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonins; as well as a number of chemicals, such as calcium, that work together to allow signals to find their way to the next cell! When a happy chemical, like dopamine, travels from the release of one nerve cell tail, it must be received by the dopamine receptors that sit on the head of the next nerve cell in line.

These happy chemicals can be released by something as simple as a happy thought or by something as extravagant as a triple chocolate lava cake.

A pretty fascinating thing happens when we take in something that spikes our dopamine levels especially high. When we experience a dopamine rush, such as the ones from substances like sugar, salt, caffeine, drugs, sex, alcohol the receptors on the receiving cells become overstimulated. The human body is absolutely incredible at adapting to this overwhelming stimulus, so over time, if we give ourselves something that surges our dopamine over and over again, our brain adapts to the rush of dopamine by killing off its own dopamine receptors. When we have less receptors for happy chemicals like dopamine, we don’t experience such a “high” or a “rush” the next time that we feed ourselves sugar or anything else that spikes our dopamine!

There are 2 concerning problems that arise from this situation:

The first problem is that because we now have less happy chemical receptors in our brain, the things that naturally stimulate our dopamine production (such as a happy thought) may not really “do it” for us anymore. If we are less responsive to the things that can satisfy us in every day life, then we become “dependent” on the things that can satisfy our greater amounts of “cravings” in order to bring our dopamine levels up to a point where we feel happy, comfortable and satisfied with our psychological and emotional state of being!!!

When we were running away from lions and bears the last thing we wanted to feel was stress! Let's break down these concepts:

Classical Conditioning - Ivan Pavlov introduced the psychological idea behind this. It entails connecting an originally neutral input with a significant or meaningful stimulus to elicit a learnt response. Dogs were trained to correlate the presentation of food (a meaningful stimulus) and the sound of a bell (a neutral stimulus) in Pavlov's well-known experiment. When no food was being offered, the dogs eventually started to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. This illustrates how our brains may link unrelated stimuli to certain reactions.

Neurons and Dependency - Neurons are the fundamental building blocks of the nervous system. They transmit information in the form of electrical signals and play a crucial role in processing and transmitting sensory information, as well as coordinating responses. Neurons are interconnected in complex networks, allowing them to communicate with each other and form the basis of all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – because it works!!!

There is a tremendous difference between emotional eating and disordered eating. If you believe that you may have dysfunctional eating patterns, it is imperative that you acquire a TEAM of professionals who can help you manage and work to heal your relationship with food.

The Importance of a Professional Team:

Registered Dietitian - A dietitian can help develop a balanced and healthy eating plan tailored to an individual's needs and goals. They can provide guidance on managing emotional eating and establishing a positive relationship with food.

Therapist or Counselor -A mental health professional with expertise in eating disorders can address underlying emotional issues that contribute to disordered eating. They can provide coping strategies and support in building a healthier relationship with food and body image.

Medical Doctor - A medical evaluation can determine if there are any physical health concerns related to an individual's eating habits. Medical professionals can also guide on proper nutrition and monitor overall health.

A commitment to bettering your well-being and a sign of strength, remember, is asking for assistance. Reaching out to specialists can help you or someone you know who you feel is struggling with disordered eating or emotional eating develop better eating habits and self-image.

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