Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Food Comes to Your Emotional Rescue

     While surfing the internet or watching your favorite TV show, you munch on caramel popcorn, and soon you’ve consumed 250 calories with not much thought. “People eat on the go or mindlessly and sometimes eat when they are not physically hungry,” says Diane Sullivan, licensed certified social worker (LCSW-C) with Meritus Health’s Behavioral Health Services. Emotional eating is eating driven by an emotion or feelings rather than hunger.

     Diane explains that people must tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Here’s how you can separate the two: 
  • Emotional hunger comes on fast; physical hunger gradually builds 
  • Certain foods like French fries or ice cream help fill an emotional void, but people who eat to satisfy hunger are open to a variety of foods. 
  • People who eat when they’re hungry stop when they’re full; emotional eaters tend to keep eating. 
  • Emotional eating brings about feelings of guilt; physical hunger does not. 

     You can use your body, not your head to get an idea of how hunger and fullness feels like. From famished/starving to “Thanksgiving full,” a basic hunger/satiety scale rates your hunger level before you eat and again after you’ve finished eating.

Food as a mood regulator 
     People with a “calming problem” tend to eat emotionally according to Sara Smith, licensed graduate social worker (LGSW). “Food is often used as a mood regulator,’ says Diane. “If you feel restless, a cupcake makes you feel better. Start by asking yourself, ‘what am I looking for in food?’ Negative emotions like emptiness, stress, boredom, loneliness and anger trigger eating,” says Diane. “You have to replace the negative with positive counterparts.” If you’re stressed, find a peaceful activity like yoga. If you’re lonely, pick up the phone and call a friend. “You can use food some of the time, but not all of the time,” explains Diane.

     Diane underscores the relationship between self-esteem and food. “You have to understand a person’s relationship with food in terms of their thinking, beliefs, feelings and behavior. But you must change your thinking before you change your behavior.” Emotional eating often suppresses people’s unpleasant thoughts and feelings. As awareness is heightened, people need to replace those feelings with healthy responses.

Getting help 
     Meritus Health’s Behavioral Health Services offers a three-session educational and support program called “Love Yourself Now, Don’t Weight” which focuses on building self-esteem and learning strategies for body acceptance while working to improve health through setting healthy lifestyle goals. “The course asks participants to look at themselves beyond their physical bodies and appreciate who they are today rather than waiting to reach a weight loss goal,” explains Sara. “We encourage people to accept where they are now and set personal health goals.” Exercise and healthy eating is promoted and weight loss can be a byproduct of the course. Another ten-week treatment group called “Life is More than Food” is available for those currently in individual therapy to help build self-respect and create healthy coping strategies. For more information on these programs, call Behavioral Health Services at 301-766-7600.

     Research continues to link the experience of eating to tastes, smells and the memory of the food experience, but new studies indicate that the stomach may influence the brain by releasing hormones—a gut/brain connection for craving high-fat foods. If you’re worried about your emotional connection to food, talk to your primary care physician about counseling to help you better understand your triggers.

By: Anne Gill

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