Emotional Eating

Ariel Richards

Ariel Richards

WF Certified Coach

Did you know that humans can see anywhere between 2 and 7 million different colours, or that we can hear about 350 000 different tones? Smell however, is a little bit more difficult to measure. Recently, researchers at The Rockefeller University did some upgrades on the old science and determined that humans may actually may be able to detect one trillion different stimuli via molecules landing on the neurons of our olfactory receptors. This would mean your nose is 150 000 times more sensitive than your eyes! We already knew that memory and smell are strongly linked. The olfactory bulb and limbic system are connected by a neurological super highway that processes emotion and associative learning, but we had no idea just how important smell was to our sensation and perception of the world around us. Look around for a moment and think about the tremendous amount of complex information you are taking in at any given moment.

We tend to get caught up in our stories, in the trials and tribulations of our day to day. How often do you take a step back and ponder in wonderment just how incredible being really is? In how well humans have coped and adapted with the leaps and bounds achieved (for better or worse) in the past 100 years? One hundred years ago in America only thirty percent of the country had a telephone. Less than 20 percent had a stove. Very few people owned a refrigerator, and almost nobody owned a radio. Just contemplate for a moment the magnitude of complexity that our modern conveniences have added to our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical lives.

In our essence, humans are social creatures living for opportunities and threats, looking to find our place in the tribe, mate, eat and have some fun. We find comfort in familiarity and are stressed, confused and frustrated by the continual unpredictability and mountain of unknowns in the world around us. In short, the world has become overwhelming, we often struggle to cope, and in doing so we seek out happy memories of times when things were safe, predictable, and happy. Enter the age of emotional eating. Eating food for reasons other than to nourish the body. Emotional eating becomes damaging when we overfeed ourselves with unhealthy foods or too great a quantity of food to the point that we create illness in the body.

There are many underlying circumstances that create opportunities for emotional eating, but the underlying causal factor is generally stress. Whether you eat to:

  • reward yourself after a difficult day,
  • to escape boredom or a task you don’t want to do,
  • to fit in,
  • because you are overtired
  • because you feel alone,
  • because anxiety is rising and you are seeking control,
  • or you learned from a young age that compulsively eating large quantities of food creates a ‘food coma’ phenomenon and that is the calm you believe you need in chaos

Emotional eating is triggered by stress. If we dig into that a little further, we can see there are several behaviours and beliefs we have attached to that stress response. Remembering that our beliefs and behaviours are constructs that we created at some earlier point in our life to keep us safe and take advantage of any opportunities for love and abundance, we can again take a step back and see if and how those old patterns are still serving us.

As you may know, in the WildFit 90 Day Challenge, we spend a good portion of time laying out a foundation for our lifestyle moving forward. A big part of that is exactly this exercise of bringing awareness to our connection with certain highly palatable foods and when that first became a heightened memory for us. You see, it is not only the sensory memory of the ‘good time’ that leaves an imprint, but an actual chemical change that happens in our body when we eat these kinds of foods.

Eating a high fat, high sugar food (like ice cream, frosting, brownies, pizza or french fries) alters opioid receptor levels in an area of the brain that controls food intake. Our ‘hunger’ sensors are overridden. Opioids are a family of chemicals with actions similar to those of morphine. However, opioids exist naturally in the brain and have been linked to feelings of pleasure and euphoria. When we notice we aren’t feeling good, either consciously or unconsciously, one of the easiest ways to change that feeling is by eating certain foods. WildFit seeks to break that training by making you aware of why it exists in the first place.

Once you are aware of this connection to food it can be a bit uncomfortable (as many of you know). However in time there is a space to realize the answers to a few simple questions:

  • Do you eat unconsciously by mindlessly reaching and chewing even after satisfied nutritionally?
  • Do you feel that without your chosen ‘junk’ or ‘fancy’ foods you would have nothing to look forward to?
  • Do you feel unable to sit with your feelings? Especially if they are uncomfortable or painful?
  • Do you feel you need to shame, blame or punish yourself for moments you see as weak or less than 110%?
  • Do you put yourself last in order of importance of all the people and priorities in your life?

If any or all of these are still yeses, chances are you are still emotionally eating, even if you are already in the WildFit tribe. The answer is not in forcing yourself to shift the behaviour, but rather changing the stressor that is creating a need for that behaviour. Eating unconsciously? Create mindfulness. Only looking forward to food as a reward or pleasure? Find more joy in your life. Unable to manage feelings well? Start a meditation or journalling practice. Full of self judgement? Take a self love course. Feeling like you are lowest rung in the totem pole? Cultivate and honour self discipline. Remember, including more of the good stuff is always more important than removing the bad stuff. If you focus on bringing this new enhancement to your life, the emotional eating may fall away, even without you noticing.

Of course, marketing will always be there to remind us the highly palatable foods are still there. As soon as we see the chocolate sundae on the commercial, our brain relies on memories created by our olfactory bulb to give the mouth the sensation of tasting the creamy, cold yet hot, chocolatey dessert and we have an entire sensory experience that makes us ‘crave’ that food. We may have an intense Food Angel & Food Devil dialogue experience to contend with. If we are in a stressed state of mind, the Food devil has a better chance of winning. Remember- all causes and patterns of emotional eating are related to stress.

So, if you are experiencing emotional eating, the number one focus is reducing your stress load. The easiest way to do that almost instantly is to take a walk in the forest. Use those incredible animal senses of yours to bring you feelings of peace and calm. Listen to the spring birds, look for sprouting plants, smell the thawing earth and enjoy the sun on your face. Breathe.

This month we are bringing you information and creating conversation around emotional eating. Stay tuned! We want to know what is your emotional eating trigger and your biggest stressor. We also want to hear about your spring forest walk. Let us know your thoughts on this article in the comments below.

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Ariel Richards

Ariel Richards

Ariel Richards is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Wellness Coach and Energy Worker living in Canada.
She is passionate about nutrition, its impact on happiness, and effect on the mind. Eating meals rich in whole and nutritious foods and practicing mindfulness has renewed her life with feelings of health, vibrancy and energy. With a specific focus on conquering chronic illness and living with mindfulness, her life experience will inspire you.
She's all about natural food and lifestyle solutions for real people living everyday lives.

4 thoughts on “Emotional Eating”

  1. Avatar

    I have cravings around 9 or 10pm – wanting a ‘treat’, and I think I want to calm my nervous system. Alcohol is awesome (1-2 drinks). Ice cream works wonders. more sustainable is a banana smoothie with nut butter and cacao. Failing that, yoghurt and fruit. Since we’ve gone full keto, I can scratch the itch with a lot of hummus and cucumber (ok, bad), or celery and almond butter. I need to feel a bit ‘full’ before going to bed (or think I do). At a pinch, super salted nuts help. If I don’t eat, or as well as eating, I look for something else to calm my system, like some edible cannabis or a quarter of a sleeping pill.
    (I note last night I ate around 7pm and went to bed at 10pm and I didn’t have cravings. Spent time with friends. It’s pretty wild the last day or so noticing how much I feel present in my body. And I’ve been falling asleep without sleeping pills – jet lag is helping. So this week could be super interesting).
    I’d love to understand more about these cravings at night, and alternative ways of soothing them so I don’t eat 2 hours before bed. that would be a MAJOR shift for me.

    1. Jørgen Gundersen
      Jørgen Gundersen

      Thank you for sharing this.

      Night cravings are not uncommon. Sometimes a glass of water can help you to take the edge off.

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