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Emotional Eating-The Brain/Mood/Food Connection

Emotional Eating.  What pops into your head when you hear those words?  Easing the pain of a bad breakup with a pint (or two) of Double Fudge Rocky Road?  Or maybe it's a bag of chips while anxiously cramming for that final exam? Could it be stopping for a burger and fries following a stressful day of work?   Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves reaching for comfort food to alleviate stress or depression.  Food doesn't just provide us with nutrients - it can also be a quick mood booster when we're feeling stressed, anxious or sad.

Here's the problem with emotional eating - it's not just the excess calories - it's that the foods we usually reach for to improve our mood may, in fact, be contributing to the problem.   There is a strong brain/mood/food connection  - the foods we eat have a direct impact on how our brains function and, in turn, how we feel.  But there is good news.  There are many foods that help stabilize or lift our mood, lower stress levels, alleviate depression and prevent/or reduce mental fatigue.

green or black tea appetite to suppress appetite during emotional eating

Let's start with tea - either green or black.  L-Theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in tea.  L-Theanine is a triple win because it can not only reduce anxiety and increase alertness, but it's also a mood booster.   And, bonus round, the positive effects of L-Theanine can be felt as soon as 30-40 minutes after intake.  Bonus round two:  tea also contains antioxidants.

.sushi as emotional eating comfort food

We've all heard the funny stories about how turkey, a source of  L-tryptophan, makes us curl up and take a nap immediately after Thanksgiving dinner.  Actually, there are other foods higher in tryptophan than turkey - we just don't stuff ourselves with them in a single sitting!  The truth is that tryptophan, when accompanied by other nutrients such a B6 and niacin, affects our brain's serotonin level and serves as a natural relaxation aid and anti-depressant.  Research has also shown that tryptophan depletion is associated with depression and anxiety.  Salmon, halibut, tofu, spinach and egg whites make the list as foods high in tryptophan. Bonus round if you are a sushi fan because dried seaweed, shrimp, crab and soy sauce are all good sources.

emotional eating and salmon

Omega 3 fatty acids rank high in the brain/mood/food connection.  Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to have a powerful influence on the brain and play a major role in reducing depression.  Fish sources of Omega 3 include salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring.  Non-fish sources include flax (oil, seeds, ground), spinach, navy and kidney beans, and wild rice.

But, it's not enough to include Omega 3 rich food - to really get the mood enhancing and other health benefits, we have to reduce our intake of Omega 6 as well.  Omega 6 is a fatty acid found in high concentrations in most of the "comfort foods" traditionally associated with emotional eating.  Almost all commercially fried foods, processed foods such as snacks and desserts, and fast foods are high in Omega 6.  This is a double whammy because Omega 6 actually competes in our body with Omega 3 fatty acids.

Bonus round goes to wild rice which is actually a grass, not a grain and is also a good source of zinc.

.mushrooms and zinc

Zinc is the nutrient most of us don't think about in relation to mood - if we think about it at all. Zinc helps regulate our stress response and a zinc deficiency  can cause symptoms of depression and increase feelings of anxiety.  A zinc deficiency can also affect our ability to concentrate, learn and retain information - not surprising since the highest concentration of zinc is in our brain.

Although a zinc deficiency can be caused by chronic stress, even if you're not chronically stressed, eating a lot of processed foods or just too many grains in your diet can result in a deficiency. Because our bodies don't store zinc, and we rapidly excrete it during periods of chronic stress and anxiety, it's a nutrient we need to consume in small amounts on a daily basis.

For nonvegetarians, oysters, lean beef short ribs, lamb, and chicken are excellent sources.  For vegetarians, wheat germ, spinach, endive, almonds, cashews, cocoa/cacao, kidney beans and mushrooms are picks of the day to get your zinc. Bonus round goes to spinach because it's also rich in folate.

Emotional eating doesn't have to be an unhealthy diet disaster. We just need to redefine our idea of "comfort food".  Hmmm, a cold glass of ice tea, fresh sushi and a piece of dark chocolate - sounds like comfort food to me!

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11 thoughts on “Emotional Eating-The Brain/Mood/Food Connection

  1. Thanks, some great info in here and thanks for the specific examples. Its so important to work on eating a wide variety of wholefoods. B vitamins are also worthy of mention in the brain/mood/food connection.

  2. This is such a thoughtful and timely post for me! My sister, mother and I had discussions on this over the weekend as we all seem to turn to food at emotional times. Be it sadness, anxiety…whatever.

    What works best for me is establishing a more exacting relationship with food. Such as THESE are the times I eat. THIS is the time of day that I won’t eat anything after (usually 7:30 pm). Of course, I’m human and falter but putting some ground rules in place seems to help curb any emotionally charged eating. In discussing this, my mom was all “Oh, but you’re vegan…so what?” But, it does matter. Emotionally eating can be indulging nutritious or non-nutritious food. It’s more a matter of me trying to break an emotional response of turning to food as a means of coping with certain emotions as a whole.

    xoxo – Kelly
    http://www.dreaminlace.com

  3. I very often choose hot tea when i need to calm down but sometimes the less healthy option do call my name. However, i have made some more efforts to go for healthier options these past couple months, and i’m happy for that. I needed an article like this to remind me and keep me on the right path. Thanks

  4. It’s truly amazing how our food affects our mood. Feeding ourselves with kindness is about so much more than food. It’s about supporting how we feel. I am always in awe of how much goodness healthy foods have to offer us! Thanks for adding to that .

  5. I find I also emotional undereat. It’s a novel concept that I never would have imagined binging on candy and chips in my 20s. But, sometimes when I’m stressed, food becomes my enemy- it makes me sick. Funny how it can bite you on both sides because not eating enough healthy foods isn’t good for you either!

  6. Alright. Time to start stress eating avocados! I knew they were my favorite for a reason! Overall, this was a super interesting read! Thank you!

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I think I’m an emotional eater even when I don’t realize it . I love chips … they are my weakness. I didn’t realize that those foods could be make my it worse though . On the bright side I LOVE green tea and drink it as often as once a day as long as I have my honey and ginger to add to it . There is always room in my life for healthier eating and I’ll start with these alternatives.

  8. I’m learning to drink more herbal teas when stressed or experiencing cravings and this post has confirmed my decisions! Thank you so much for sharing- will definitely be exploring these other options!

  9. Very interesting read as I turn to food for comfort on the regular. Guess I need to change up the things I’m eating, especially as a vegetarian.

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