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Emotional Awareness and Eating

By: Dr. Scott Perryman

How Your Emotions Can Affect Your Eating Habits

For most of us, eating is as simple as feeling hungry and then ingesting a meal. The thought process appears to be simple and straightforward. However, what we don’t always pick up on is that the body is a battleground of hidden emotions often trying to interfere in this equilibrium.

The role emotions play in our appetite

These emotions can have pervasive and all-encompassing side effects apart from their immediate aim of making us feel something. Especially in our relatively safe modern world where there’s no need to run from immediate danger or recoil from a venomous snake. So, it’s not surprising that these emotions find another method of manifestation.

Unfortunately, these pesky feelings often choose the form of depression or anxiety sometimes even going as far as to become eating disorders. Their expression as an eating disorder is particularly interesting considering we tend to attribute disordered eating to an excessively body-conscious society. 

But what happens when there’s no perceivable outside cause? What if the culprit lies hiding away within? 

Is there scientific evidence to back it up?

This is exactly what recent research is pointing towards. But before thinking about this scientifically, I first ask that you think of any-time your eating habits changed significantly. Were you stressed? Overwhelmed? Struggling to cope with an onslaught of emotion?  If yes, then you already know the fundamental results of the research. 

You see, we’re no strangers to drawing lines between how we feel mentally and how we feel physically. The study of psychosomatic illness has been around since the dawn of time and every ancient civilization along the way had their form of pinpointing strong emotions to body parts. 

It’s a well-known concept

For East Asian medicine – every organ was responsible for a different emotion. In medieval times, it was the stomach. And finally, for us, it’s the central and oh-so-feeble heart. You could argue that there’s little connection between our body and our mind and it’s all pure conjecture without anything to back it up. 

But we still feel aches while stressed and claim to have “butterflies in our stomachs” when nervous – there’s no getting around it. So, now that we understand the basic results of the research, what about the more complicated and revelatory information?

It’s all down to emotional intelligence

According to a study collaboratively undertaken by several prestigious universities across the UK, Emotional Intelligence (E.I.) and eating habits are linked. To be more precise, eating disorder patients tend to have lower emotional intelligence. 

“What is emotional intelligence?” you might be asking. Emotional intelligence is our ability to perceive, process, and manage feelings. It’s essentially how capable we are of “reading a room” and also dealing with our own inner web of emotions. It can cover anything from being able to read facial expressions accurately to controlling urges.

Why does our emotional intelligence change our eating habits?

And why does this matter when it comes to eating? According to the study being unable to effectively deal with your emotions can lead to frustration. It can also lead to neglect of feelings which can then manifest over time resulting in self-harm. Unfortunately, this self-harm often presents in the form of restrictive eating. 

In fact, the possible outcomes of low emotional intelligence are so grave that all of its symptoms have been given an umbrella term – Alexithymia. This disorder is defined literally as “…without words for emotions” meaning that its sufferers are left with no way to channel or share what they’re feeling. 

Interestingly, the rate of Alexithymia within anorexia nervosa patients is between 23–77%, and 40–63% in bulimia nervosa patients; compared to rates of 0–28% in non-clinical samples.

Who’s most at risk?

This suggests that an inability to express oneself can often result in turning frustrations inward. This leads to sufferers acting out in a physical manner rather than communicatively. 

What’s more, is that this inability to put experiences and feelings into words can make worthwhile therapy a difficult task. The research papers show that this emotional deficit applies across all sufferers regardless of age. 

It is also believed that low emotional intelligence can result in all types of eating disorders. 

But what can we take away from this concerning our own eating habits? Are we all free of disordered eating simply because we can express ourselves? It’s just not that simple.

Emotional eating is the act of eating just to smooth over rocky emotions or suppress them. We’ve all heard the expression “eating our feelings” and dare I say it – we’ve all participated in it. 

Though it may seem like harmless gorging, it can be a symptom of a larger issue. Difficulty finding healthy coping mechanisms can cause emotions to progress into serious problems. For example, eating when distressed could lead to obesity over time which can, of course, have negative effects on physical and mental health.

Furthermore, if we don’t tackle our issues head-on, we risk losing the ability to talk about them in the future. So, using food as a crutch during tough times could lead to a grim spiral. And once we lose control, we often tend to grasp at any way possible to regain it – often at the detriment of our health. Eating disorders for example.

Our body’s contribution

However, don’t think you’re to blame! We’re all at risk of facing this challenge due to our natural makeup. Undergoing duress can cause the body’s endocrine system to release cortisol. Cortisol is a natural hormone that triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response and is found in high levels among people who suffer from an anxiety disorder. 

Though its immediate effects are to suppress appetite and limit any unnecessary bodily functions, over time, it leads to a significant increase in appetite. So, the more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more you’ll find yourself turning towards food. 

Seeking out professional help or discovering your optimal coping mechanisms are the best ways to reduce stress. Learning mindful techniques can also help quell anxiety and thus help control undue hunger.

I hope you’ve gained some valuable insights into how eating habits and emotional states can be entwined and what effects this can have on our mental health. It’s worthwhile examining your own relationship with food and determining if your appetite changes with your mood. As we now know, there’s an inextricable link to be found between the two, but can we control it? That’s for us to find out!

Schedule a consultation with the Whole Health Weight Loss Institute to start your weight loss journey today through medical intervention, exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness.