Most of us have turned to food to make ourselves feel better at some point. Whether it is snuggling up with a pot of ice cream following a break up or turning to chocolate and biscuits to keep us going through a difficult day at work. This is known as emotional eating, consuming food in response to emotions. But while it may make us feel better initially, in the long run, it can have a negative impact on our health.
We are all aware that obesity is a major societal issue with rates still increasing. Overeating in response to emotions is just one of the many factors thought to drive weight gain and increase body mass index (BMI). However, while other factors do come into play, it is important to understand how emotions may influence weight gain to help aid weight loss and management.
So, why do we turn to food when we’re feeling emotional? Some researchers argue that emotional eating is a strategy used when we are unable to effectively regulate our emotions. This “emotional dysregulation” can be broken down into three aspects – understanding emotions, regulating emotions, and behaviours (what we do in response to a given situation).
Understanding our emotions involves being able to identify them and describe them to others. Being unable to do this is part of a personality trait called alexithymia, which literally means having “no words for emotions”. Varying degrees of alexithymia occur from person to person. Around 13% of the population could be classed as alexithymic, with the rest of us falling somewhere along a continuum.
Emotional regulation, meanwhile, encompasses the strategies we use to reduce (negative emotions) and manage our emotions generally. It can include exercising, breathing or meditation, as well as eating.
A number of things influence how we regulate emotions. This includes personality factors such as negative affect (general levels of depression and anxiety) and negative urgency (acting rashly in response to negative emotions). When experiencing upsetting emotions, impulsive people may act without thinking. For example when feeling upset during an argument with a loved one, you may say something in the spur of the moment which you later regret. If a person cannot appropriately regulate their emotions, it can lead to the use of ineffective strategies, such as emotional eating.