Over the week I spent researching and writing this story about emotional eating, I consumed an entire bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and a small block of Lindt chocolate.
I'd love to say it was in the name of research, but the truth is that reaching for high-fat, high-sugar food is a long-running pattern for me – which has nothing to do with my stomach and everything to do with my emotions (in this case: stress and feeling overwhelmed).
If you can relate, take heart – research indicates many of us are in the same sugar-laden boat.
American experts estimate that 75 per cent of overeating is caused by emotions, and research across the ditch found more than 90 per cent of Australian women who struggle with their weight also comfort eat.
Yet health and nutrition advice continues to centre around telling us to control our portions, eat more vegetables, and reduce our intake of sugar, salt and bad fats. In other words, it's focused on the 'what' of eating, not the 'why'.
Given that we're arguably more knowledgeable about healthy eating than at any time in history, yet our population continues to grow alarmingly fatter, it would appear something is missing from modern health messages.
Experts such as nutrition coach Eugenia Nikiforow think the connection between our emotions and our eating habits might just be it.
Based in Hamilton, Nikiforow teaches her clients to recognise what the body is really looking for when those Tim Tam cravings kick in.
"The triggers could be sadness, frustration or anger… quite often it's loneliness," she says. "Nowadays we are connected by Facebook and social media but still very isolated. People are sitting at home on their own, at 6 o'clock in the evening in front of the TV, munching away – it's looking for that comfort in foods."
American psychotherapist Karen Koenig, who specialises in the psychology of eating, says women are more likely than men to feed their feelings.
"Because women are encouraged to take care of others rather than themselves, they are prone to eat for comfort because eating feels like a legitimate need. If they do things like watch TV or take a nap to relax or rest, they feel guilty."
She adds: "There are people with certain personality traits who are prone to misuse food: people who have low self-esteem, have difficulty with self-regulation – especially of emotions – are perfectionists, are people-pleasers and approval-seekers.
Also, there is a correlation between trauma survivors, especially of sexual and emotional abuse, and misuse of food."
Unfortunately, it would appear biology is against us. A 2015 Cornell University study found people in negative emotional states tend to crave sweets more than those in a positive frame of mind.
"Foods high in sugar and fat generate dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, which diminishes our discomfort by improving our mood – hence the term 'comfort foods'," explains Koenig, the author of The Food and Feelings Workbook.
The desire to eat for comfort starts early. As children, we're rewarded for good behaviour with lollies and takeaways.
We grow up celebrating birthdays with cake and burying the pain of break-ups in a tub of ice-cream (thanks, Bridget Jones).
No surprise that when we're feeling sad, rejected or just not good enough, as adults we instinctively reach for something that'll give us quick pleasure. For a short time, it does. Then we end up feeling guilty, regretful or bloated – it's a vicious cycle.
It was Nikiforow's own journey to develop a healthy relationship with food that prompted her career direction. At age 16, she developed an eating disorder that saw her drop to a skeletal frame in high school, while surviving on just one meal a day.
Years of obsessive dieting followed, and at age 30, she entered a body physique competition.
"A nutrition specialist put me on a very strict diet where you lose lots of body weight quickly. I was doing lots of weight training and I got very deficient in nutrients. I craved sugar at any time of the day so I ended up eating so much sugary food that I gained lots of weight. I started emotionally eating, and my hormones were all over the show so I lost my period for half a year."
After overcoming her "disturbed relationship" with food, Nikiforow came to a startling realisation – this tendency to satisfy ourselves by stuffing ourselves is universal.
Fuelled by a desire to help people make peace with food, her business Mindfoodness – a play on 'mindfulness' – was born. Instead of dieting, she is teaching people to respond to their body's emotions in ways that don't involve food.
"[People who come to see me] are constantly on a diet, they've been to Weight Watchers, they've been to Jenny Craig, but nothing helps so they are tired, lacking energy and very stressed," says Nikiforow, who works with clients around the world via Skype and also runs workshops in Hamilton and online.
"They go from restricting their food to 'I've had enough, I just want to enjoy food' and binge eating. Then they gain weight, hate their body and go looking for the latest diet."
Teaching people to be mindful about what they eat, and why, is at the heart of Nikiforow's transformational work. Part of the reason this idea seems foreign is because we've become a society of absent-minded eaters, wolfing down food while starting at our phones, working at our desks or running around after the kids.
"Mindfulness in eating is about understanding what the body is asking for and making a mindful decision, 'do I crave this because I really would like that piece of chocolate, or because my body is needing energy right now?'
If you are actually physically hungry, allow yourself to be present with that meal – paying attention to the texture, the flavour and the smell," she says.
Sometimes, just taking time to tune into your body, instead of blindly responding to an emotion by feeding it with food, is enough to allow the craving to pass, Nikiforow says.
"Scan your body: do you feel tension somewhere? Create that awareness and connection to yourself by asking, 'what are my physical sensations, my emotional sensations?'
By the time you've done this, most of the time the need for food goes. You're taking time rather than reacting. Because what often happens is 'I feel like this' then you go and eat it and then it's 'I actually didn't need that'."
As well as helping us make better food choices, mindful eating can also help with portion control. Because as Nikiforow points out, emotional eating also leads us to overeat.
"If you were not hungry in the first place, how do you know when to stop?" she explains. "Unfortunately, it's only when you're uncomfortably full or the packet of chips has run out."
**How to curb emotional eating
- Eat with awareness**
Avoid distractions while eating – turn off the TV, put down your phone and focus on the experience of nourishing your body with food. "Pay attention to the smell, look, texture and flavour of the food, stopping when you've had enough instead of being uncomfortably full," says Nikiforow.
2. Boost your EQ
When you feel an unpleasant emotion, take time to identify the exact emotion instead of rushing to bury it with food.
"Some emotions we can do something about, such as loneliness," says Koenig. "Others we can only go through, such as grieving for someone who has died. So we need to know whether we would be better off experiencing an emotion because it's inescapable or taking action to respond to what it is telling us we need in that moment."
3. Look for alternatives
Reach for other ways to create comfort instead of food. "Try going for a walk, going to bed with a book and reading for a bit, calling a friend, joining a club or getting a hobby," Nikiforow suggests. "If it is loneliness, ask 'how can I create more connections in my life?'"
4. Stop dieting
As a reader of Good Health Choices, you probably already know punishing diets are a bad idea. And here's further proof: it disrupts healthy appetite signals, says Koenig, making you more likely to feed your feelings.
Words: Trudie McConnochie