Everyone has favorite foods, and for many of us, those favorites are comfort foods that spark fond memories from childhood and other positive feelings. But why are certain foods such an emotional comfort? And why are they almost always unhealthy options? The answer lies in the hormones that trigger our emotional responses.

Why We Do It

Emotional eating, or eating to feel a sense of comfort as a response to negative feelings, originates with cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Cortisol causes cravings for foods that are high in fats, salt, and sugar—foods that all trigger a release of dopamine.

Cortisol may spike in situations when you are fatigued, stressed, or feeling social anxiety. Eating may be your immediate reaction to feel more comfortable, and you are most likely to go for unhealthy comfort foods in those situations. For example, you might spend the evening at the snack table eating potato chips and candy when you are at a party where you don’t know many other guests. Emotional eating can also be rooted in boredom or familiar habits.

How to Control It

While you may not be able to avoid stress, boredom, or fatigue, you can better control how you react to these emotional eating triggers. One step is to eat more mindfully, sticking to only regular meals without consuming snacks throughout the day. You might also implement a system of assessing your hunger before reaching for a snack. Think first about what you are doing and if some other trigger is tricking you into thinking you’re hungry. A food diary can help with this task. You might also develop new hobbies to release stress and combat boredom.

Talking to a therapist is another great strategy for coping with emotional eating, which may have a variety of triggers that he or she can help you identify. To schedule an appointment with a therapist within 24 hours, visit MeMD.

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