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Emotional eating: causes and advice to control it

What is it?

Consuming large amounts of high-sugar, high-fat food in response to your mood rather than eating when you are actually hungry. Emotional eaters try to subdue or soothe negative emotions such as fear, stress, anger, loneliness, sadness or boredom. Everyone indulges in emotional eating to some extent as food is often a big part of celebrations such as birthdays and weddings, but it becomes a problem when food is a person’s main mechanism for regulating mood.

What causes it and who suffers from it?

The triggers for emotional eating may be stress, anxiety, PMS, anger, loneliness, boredom, tiredness and depression or feeling deprived of foods after a strict diet.

Lowri Turner, TV presenter and qualified nutritionist (, says: “Almost all of us do some kind of emotional eating: when you feel happy you want to celebrate and you have a cake. Or when you feel down you may have a chocolate bar to make you feel better. Unless it is causing you problems to do with weight gain or food obsession then it isn’t something you need to worry about, but in some people I see emotions have become so bound up in food that they are desperate to separate the two.”

When people overeat high-sugar, high-fat foods the pleasure centre of the brain becomes stimulated. Some people may do this because they were born with a slight chemical imbalance and do not produce enough dopamine, the “get up and go” hormone or serotonin, the happiness/contentment hormone, so they try to compensate by eating foods that will give the brain a hit.

But then things get much worse. Turner warns: “Once you start tipping large amounts of sugar into the brain you start destabilising blood sugar levels. Any up and down moods that you might have had which could have been causing your emotional eating will be exacerbated: you feel great when you’ve had that Mars Bar, your blood sugar goes way up high and you feel as if you’ve got loads of energy. But then you plunge down on the other side and you need another chocolate bar, and that makes you feel very unstable.” And so when originally one doughnut would have been enough, one is no longer enough.

How can we conquer the urge to eat?

It may seem too tough at first to walk away from the Krispy Kremes, but Henrietta Bailey, a nutritional therapist who works at Pure Sports Medicine in Threadneedle Street, London (, promises that after that first step it gets easier: “The main aim is to minimise sugar consumption so that cravings lessen after a few days. The more sugar you eat the more you will crave.”

Bailey also suggests these tricks to reduce cravings: “When you get up drink a quarter to half a lemon squeezed into warm water as it will not only leave you feeling refreshed it can also help with preventing sweet tooth cravings.

“Aim not to start the day with anything sweet such as a sugary cereal or coffee/tea with added sugar as this can set you up with cravings throughout the rest of the day. A filling, protein-based breakfast is a great start to the day - try an omelette with vegetables.”

She advises regular, well-balanced meals and a snack containing a good portion of animal or vegetable protein. “Aim not to leave longer than three hours between meals to prevent any blood sugar lows, which can contribute to cravings,” she adds.

She recommends taking half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day to manage blood sugar levels. Cinnamon contains a polyphenol called MHCP (methylhydroxy chalcone polymer), a compound that is used to help diabetics control blood sugar levels. Add the spice to porridge, milk, fruit salads, marinades, stews or curries.

Turner also advises a protein-rich diet: “Eat protein at every meal, lean protein, chicken as well as oily and white fish. What you don’t want to do is have a big bowl of pasta. Build your meal around a piece of protein and have lots of vegetables. People I see who are emotional eaters are over-consuming pasta, rice, all of those bland foods that break down to sugar in the body.” And inevitably, if you are not exercising enough, the sugar turns into fat.

What activities help you to control it?

Exercise is a good way to lift mood, says Bailey. “I would encourage sticking to a regular exercise programme, choosing activities that can be looked forward to such as a Zumba class [the Latin dance-inspired exercise regime], which can be enjoyed with friends. Some people find that writing a diary is a helpful outlet at the end of a difficult day. Others can find distraction techniques and meditation beneficial.”

She adds: “Most fundamentally it is important to gain a better understanding of the mental and emotional issues that can trigger emotional eating. Cognitive behavioural therapy could help you to work this through and provide you with better coping behaviours.”

Read more about emotional eating

5 ways to overcome emotional eating

10 bad things you never knew sugar was doing to your body

Amelia Freer's guide to sugar and sweeteners

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