What’s the one thing that group celebrations often have in common? Yummy food! Food has become a staple at all social gatherings. In fact, even when we are by ourselves, we often turn to food as a reward or a pick-me-up. The result? It becomes connected with certain emotions. Emotional eating – or literally, eating in response to emotions – then becomes hardwired into our brains.
The Hardwiring of Emotional Eating
If you often feel like you do not have control of your eating habits and patterns, you aren’t alone.
It is a textbook example of classical conditioning.
In the late 1800s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of experiments on dogs. His assistants would ring a bell and then immediately feed the dogs. Pavlov soon discovered that the dogs began salivating when they heard the bell – even before they saw the food. In their minds, food was now connected to a bell. And their bodies responded accordingly, producing saliva and digestive enzymes. But, a bell has little to do with food.
Pavlov’s discovery became known as classical conditioning, and humans are prone to it as well. Let’s say that every day when you arrive home from work, you walk straight to your kitchen and grab a cookie. You want to unwind from a stressful day, and besides, you worked hard and deserve it, right? Soon, you notice that eating a cookie is not a conscious decision you make. It simply happens. Call it what you want – routine, habit, or classical conditioning – but the bottom line is that you are riding shotgun, no longer in the driver’s seat. That end of day sweet treat has become physiologically hardwired.
Eating as A Pick-Me-Up
As the example above demonstrated, emotional eating commonly occurs with significant stress – like the stress you experience during the workday. When cortisol levels spike, the nervous system enters into flight-or-flight mode, and your blood sugar drops. At this point, your body craves sugar to fuel this continued response.
Once you eat that treat, then what? Sugar itself is very addictive, working on the same pleasure-reward circuit in the brain as drugs do. Eating sugar triggers a flood of dopamine – a feel-good chemical – in the brain, and you are essentially rewarded with an improvement in your mood. Combine this with your evolutionary drive to avoid pain and maximize pleasure, and you have yourself a sweet tooth!
Pretty soon, every time you feel down, you reach for something sugary, or better yet the perfect trifecta – sugar, salt, and fat! You see, food manufacturers know what keeps you coming back for more, and it is precisely this deliciously unhealthy combination. That’s why fast food establishments add a sprinkle of sugar to their fries!
Eating as A Reward
When was the last time that you promised yourself an edible treat after reaching some sort of milestone – no matter how small? As I have already mentioned, certain (typically unhealthy) foods trigger the pleasure-reward circuit in the brain. If food is always your reward, any other reward may seem like a disappointment. In fact, using food as a reward may be an artifact of childhood, as children are often motivated by and rewarded with food.
The Issue of Control
When everything else in life seems to be spinning out of control, it’s not uncommon to want to latch on to food as the one constant variable. It makes us feel safe and comfortable. In some cases, people may overly restrict or overly consume (binge) food simply out of a desire for control. Disordered eating patterns are often more about control than about food itself.
The Self-Esteem Game
If you lack self-esteem, your emotional eating might be fueled by feelings of self-pity or self-hatred. When this is the case, it is common to feel guilty and ashamed of your eating soon afterwards.
Even babies use food as a self-soothing technique. But as an adult, it is important to recognize this tendency and turn to other heathier ways to boost self-esteem and feel confident in your own skin.
How Helix Can Help
If you struggle with emotional eating, you are in plenty of company. In fact, 38 percent of adults say that they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods because of stress in the past month. To create a breakthrough, you need a support system.
At Helix, we recognize the many emotions and situations – both negative and positive – that trigger emotional eating. We will work with you – body, mind, and spirit – to rewire the destructive behavior patterns that facilitate automatic, ingrained eating habits in response to certain emotions. We know that it’s not simply an issue of self-discipline and self-control. Through our cutting-edge psychosomatic therapies, you can overcome emotional eating!