Why we eat not-so-healthy food when we are sad, or happy
At some point, most people would have indulged in some kind of emotional eating. Maybe a tub of ice cream or a big slice of cake at the end of a stressful day, or a pack of chips or a medium-size pizza along with a pint of beer, as reward for a job well done.
“Whether we are anxious, sad, stressed, or celebrating a special occasion, food is always there to comfort us, to give us pleasure. Have you ever seen anyone celebrate or drown their sorrows with a fresh green salad?” asks Kamna Chhibber, a psychologist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, adjacent to Delhi.
Research established long back that emotions play a vital role in what we eat and how much; it’s a pattern described as emotional eating.
A study published in July 2014 in the Journal Of Consumer Psychology, for instance, found that a negative mood “increases the salience of immediate concrete goals such as mood management, leading to greater preference for indulgent foods over healthy foods”. Small wonder then that the go-to image of comfort eating anywhere in the world is someone crying into a tub of ice cream.
Joy, too, leads to increased consumption of indulgent foods, as a study published in the Appetite journal in 2013 noted.
“In the case of a celebration, we want to keep the happiness going, even subconsciously, so we indulge in comfort food,” says Sameer Malhotra, senior consultant psychiatrist, psychotherapist and de-addiction specialist at Max Hospitals in Delhi.
A recent study suggests emotional eating can be blamed on parents. Claire Farrow of Aston University, UK, who led the two-year-long study of parents and their children (aged 3-5), says: “As a parent, there is often a natural instinct to try and protect our young children from eating ‘bad’ foods: those high in fat, sugar or salt. Instead, we often use these food types as a treat or a reward, or even as a response to ease pain if children are upset.”
“In doing this, we may be teaching children to use these foods to cope with their different emotions, and in turn unintentionally teaching them to emotionally eat later in life.”
A 2012 article, “Why Stress Causes People To Overeat”, published by the Harvard Medical School in the US, says that while stress may actually reduce appetite in the short term, it’s an altogether different story in the long term. “A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus produces a hormone which suppresses appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline), which helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold,” it says. But when stress persists, it explains, “The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away—or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the ‘on’ position—cortisol may stay elevated.”
There’s also research on what kind of food people prefer when it comes to emotional eating. “Comfort food preferences differ across gender and age. Males prefer warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods (such as steaks), while females prefer sugary foods (such as chocolates, ice creams, cakes),” says N. Arul Vanan, senior consultant, general and laparoscopic surgery, bariatric and metabolic surgery, at the Fortis Hospital in Mulund, Mumbai.
There’s nothing wrong in indulging in comfort food sometimes—the problem comes if it happens too often. “The kind of lives we lead, we are almost always far more stressed than happy. And we try to numb that feeling by stress eating, comfort eating, emotional eating—it’s all the same, you can call it whatever you like,” says Chhibber.
The vicious cycle
Considering that most people at work suffer from stress owing to issues of performance, salary, personal relationships and unpredictable work environment (as the 2016 data by Optum, a provider of employee assistance programmes to companies, suggests), stress eating can become one of the major causes of obesity. “Repeated bouts of daily stress keep the stress system chronically active, which alters the brain reward and motivation pathways, causing increased consumption of comfort foods. This induces metabolic changes that lead to obesity, which, in turn, regulates the mood due to metabolic disturbances, leading to a ‘bi-directional’ vicious cycle of mood, food and obesity,” says Dr Vanan, who also heads the obesity clinic at the Fortis hospital.
“In the last two decades,” he adds, “we have seen a considerable increase in overeating, with the severe consequences of a rise in obesity and associated diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, blood pressure, even depression). Unfortunately, there’s no official data on this since it’s difficult to know whether someone is an emotional eater or not.”
The addiction angle
Emotional eating can turn easily into food addiction, since emotions play a pivotal role in any significant situation, good or bad. “There’s a thin line between emotional eating and food addiction. Such a behaviour is a compulsion, something you feel you have to do, while an addiction is something you can’t live without. It’s not very difficult to cross the line. To identify between the two, we monitor the patient’s behaviour over a period of time,” says Chhibber.
Dr Vanan adds, “Interestingly, highly palatable foods activate the same brain regions of reward/pleasure that are active in drug addiction, suggesting a neuronal mechanism of food.”
Studies have shown that fattening foods could be addictive. A study published in 2010 in the Nature Neuroscience journal found that high-fat, high-sugar foods affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine or heroin. Last year, a study in the journal PLOS One said that “excessive sugar consumption increases the dopamine levels in the brain, with higher levels of sugar needed to achieve the same reward levels”. Simply put, long-term consumption of sugar will eventually cause a reduction in dopamine levels, making people consume higher quantities of sugar to reach the same “high”.
“The kind of effect high-fat foods have on our brain makes it all the more important to quickly address the issue of emotional eating,” says Chhibber.
Give it time
People believe that high-calorie foods are the way out of difficult feelings, which absolutely is not the case, says Dr Malhotra (see “Think before you eat”). A study published in 2014 in the journal Health Psychology found, for instance, that your mood will probably improve on its own in any case.
“Also, even if the food helps with the mood, the effect is momentary compared to the effect the dense calories will have on our body. Comfort need not be associated with food always, it can be achieved alternatively by following a healthy routine and regular physical activity, destressing, adequate sleep, meditation and a healthy balanced diet,” says J.D. Mukherji, senior director and head of neurology at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi. “Also, don’t eat from the packet (essentially, avoid packaged/processed foods),” he adds.
Chhibber says: “One needs to actively set limits to the quantities of food one consumes. It is never about not eating food; rather, it is important to be conscious of the amount one is consuming. Talk to people around you if you feel you’re struggling with something. Most importantly, do not run away from your problems, embrace them and work on them.”
Think before you eat
Follow a balanced diet and avoid long gaps between meals
■Balanced lifestyle helps. Try to eat healthy and follow a balanced nutritional diet.
■ Plan in advance as to what you want to eat.
■ Eat slowly.
■Try to enjoy the flavour and taste of food while eating.
■ Avoid unnecessary distractions while eating.
■ Replace unhealthy snacks with healthy ones.
■ Keep a check on the number of calories consumed in one go.
■ Avoid long gaps/long periods of fasting to compensate overeating.
■Most importantly, exercise.
—Sameer Malhotra, senior consultant psychiatrist, psychotherapist and de-addiction specialist at Max Hospitals in Delhi.
Are you a comfort eater?
■When you are feeling stressed, do you start craving for calorie-dense foods?
■When you have a fight with your friend or someone very close, do you instead of talking to him/her about it, go on a food binge?
■Are you eating when you are not really hungry?
■Do you avoid getting into a confrontational situation because you fear it will trigger a binge episode?
■If your response to any of the two questions above is yes, you could be an emotional eater.