Is binging on junk food your way of escaping your feelings of anger, hurt, loneliness, boredom and depression? Perhaps it is not specific cravings you are giving into, but you maybe indulging in emotional eating. As nutritionist Pooja Singhania defines it, emotional eating is the unreasonable and excessive consumption of energy dense food (commonly known as comfort or junk food) in the absence of hunger.
Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Varkha Chulani, states that most addictions can be due to emotional reasons, eating being no exception. “You eat because you are upset about something,” she says.
“You may even hate yourself that you are eating ‘just like that’. And you eat again to avoid self-hatred, so on and so forth. It is a vicious loop. The body doesn’t really need nutrition. The hypothalamus is not sending food signals, but the person is indulging because he is feeding his emotional centres, not his physiological ones.”
Any emotional distress can cause this problem. The reasons can be personal or professional such as loss of a job, failure in an exam, a break up, fight with a parent or any other stressful situation. “Studies have shown that high secretion of Cortisol, a hormone released during stressful situations, controls the centre for appetite in the brain and is responsible for specific cravings of sweet as well as salty foods among anxious individuals,” says Singhania.
Also, the human nervous system may also have a crucial role to play in what you eat and when you eat. Chulani explains, “The nervous system is subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the fight or flight response while the parasympathetic nervous system allows the body to ‘relax’ and go back to a ‘chilled’ state. When we are upset, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This makes us terribly uncomfortable and creates bodily changes, which we wish to avoid.” She adds, “Since the parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the system of pleasure – is easy to arouse – by eating, consuming alcohol, having sex or shopping, you indulge in it so that you may alleviate your uncomfortable feelings. Thus eating takes the role of avoiding emotional pain rather than killing hunger.”
Breaking the habit
Treating the problem from a dietary perspective would be like treating the symptom and not getting to the cause. “After all, this problem isn’t about being able to eating right. It is about why you are self-defeatingly becoming a pig. The answer then is not exercise or diet but emotional management,” says Chulani.
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