What if the key to weight loss had nothing to do with food? What if it actually had more to do with your emotions?
According to several research studies, it often does. And that's good news because once you learn how to identify and work with your emotions-good and bad ones-you can beat the battle of an expanding waistline.
One such emotion that can trigger an overeating fest is stress brought on by your job. A recent Finnish study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed 230 working women and their eating behaviors over a 12-month period. The researchers discovered that women who had job burnout were more likely to turn to food as a source of comfort and stress-relief. In fact, their level of emotional eating and uncontrolled eating was "significantly higher" than those women who weren't overworked, leading the scientists to conclude that changing our eating behaviors needs to start by evaluating our stress levels at work.
It's not just job burnout that can have us reaching for an entire bag of chips or cookies as a source of comfort. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center and author of "50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food," says there are actually quite a few causes of emotional eating.
"Many different feelings prompt emotional eating like stress, anxiety and anger," Albers explains. "But positive feelings like extreme happiness can prompt it, too. Emotional eating happens with both types of emotions."
The tendency for emotional eating can happen on a biological level of course, like when your body experiences stress. Your cortisol levels go up and then you crave salty, sugary, fatty foods. Emotional eating may also be perpetuated by the media, according to Albers. "There are a lot of ads telling us that when we're really stressed we can heal ourselves with chocolate," she says. "That type of message can really creep into your subconscious."
Many of us were also taught during our childhood that food-mac n' cheese after a bad day at school or an ice cream cone after falling and skinning your knees-can soothe us.
And while it's true that food can produce a comforting response when emotions are running high, the problem is that most of us have not been taught healthier alternatives to soothe ourselves. We are generally ill-equipped when it comes to how to cope with stress. (How many of us have ever taken a stress-management class?)
"When we have different emotions, we often respond to that feeling as if it's hunger instead of really differentiating what it is," explains Albers. "It takes getting to know yourself really well and what your emotional buttons are."
In fact, understanding those emotions goes a long way toward curbing impulsive eating-even when we're dining out and tempted by all sorts of delicious foods.
One such study by the University of Kentucky looked at the "emotional intelligence" of consumers-meaning the ability to identify, assess and control the emotions of oneself and others-and found that people who made the healthiest choices at restaurants had high correlations between their emotional intelligence and how confident they were about their emotional intelligence (what researchers call "emotional calibration").
In other words, understanding our emotions helps us make smarter food choices-even when we're tired or stressed and see a tempting photo of a hot fudge sundae on the menu. On the other hand, those with emotional "miscalibration"-a disconnect between the confidence to make choices based on emotions and actual emotional abilities-are more susceptible to impulsive eating, such as ordering that sundae even though they weren't planning on having one.
In short, people who know their emotional buttons will turn to other healthier alternatives to make themselves feel better. Sometimes that intuitive knowledge is naturally there, but most times we need to teach ourselves how to turn to solutions that actually feel better than food.
To help you do just that, try these seven healthy ways to overcome emotional eating:
Get on Pinterest
Albers tells clients to find a distraction when they feel the tendency to eat brought on by emotions-not hunger. And believe it or not, one of the best outlets her clients find today is Pinterest. "They go to that site and get lost in it," she notes. "You can discover wonderful inspirational photos, and it's a very uplifting and motivational site. Before you know it, your food cravings have passed."
Make some hot tea
When emotions run high, so do your cortisol levels. Drinking herbal teas can reduce that stress and help get your body back into balance. Meanwhile, if you're feeling sluggish, try green tea instead. It increases your dopamine levels, giving you more energy. "It can help to drink tea throughout the day and in the moment," says Albers. "It's warm and soothing, and any time you change sensations with your body-for example, drinking something cold or hot-it can change your mood."
If you're stressed and really craving something chocolate to make you feel better.
Take a yoga class
Virtually any type of yoga is helpful because through the poses, you get in touch with your body. You learn to sense how you're feeling, what your body needs and what it best responds to. Albers says one type of yoga that she does with clients is laughing yoga. "People love it," she says. "It's just so funny that you naturally start laughing and feeling less stressed."
The theory is that all laughing is the same-no matter if you're laughing because of a joke or you're making yourself laugh. It has the same feel-good effect. "Distracting yourself in the moment with something funny is a great tool because it makes you focus on what's going on inside instead of wanting to reach for food," she says.
Tap it out
Another study presented at the International Congress of Applied Psychology in Melbourne in July 2010 revealed that psychological acupuncture was successful in reducing food cravings for up to six months in people who are overweight or obese. The technique combines gentle tapping on pressure points while focusing on particular emotions and thoughts. It was found that this reduced common cravings for sweet carbohydrates, such as cakes, and chocolate or salty foods, such as chips, by over-riding emotional eating at the subconscious level.
Grab some pistachios
These little gems are one of the lowest calorie, lowest cholesterol and highest fiber nuts out there. And they help regulate your blood sugar. While things like chocolate will just spike your blood sugar and then make it drop so you'll end up feeling worse later, nuts keep blood sugar levels steady. That means you'll feel satisfied without the dramatic highs and lows.
"The main thing with pistachios," says Albers, "is to buy them in shells because that will make you slow down and eat them more mindfully." Peeling them is therapeutic and meditative, giving you a sense of calm. Plus, you'll end up with a pile of shells, so you can prevent overeating by tracking exactly how many you ate.
Drink coconut water
This may seem like the latest fad in yoga studios and gyms across the country, but coconut water can actually be helpful in overcoming emotional eating. That's because it has a lot of potassium, which helps regulate blood sugar while reducing stress and anxiety. It's also good for hydration. Dehydration can make you feel stressed out, which can then cause you to reach for that cupcake.
Nab some shut-eye
Getting enough sleep is so important in reducing our vulnerability to stress and overeating. "Being tired is a huge culprit of emotional eating," notes Albers. "When we're tired, we tend to give up and we don't make smart, clear decisions." Fatigue also alters your hunger hormones, making you want to eat more food-especially junk food. That's why many women who are juggling a lot in their lives (children, a demanding career) don't eat well. Your best bet? Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night, and take a power nap when necessary and when you can.
"People are scared by that word," says Albers, "but all that means is tuning in and taking two minutes to yourself." You can do that by unplugging your phone, having some quiet time and taking deep breaths. "By relaxing and slowing down your breathing, you are tricking your body into thinking that you're going to sleep," she says. "This sends a message to relax."
Other helpful tips on overcoming emotional eating include journaling before and after you eat to help assess your hunger level and acknowledge why you ate (were you bored, tired, stressed or truly hungry?). Or keep track with an app: Albers just released her EatingMindfully app on iTunes that you can download to track all of this.
Planning ahead and forecasting your emotions is important too. "It's like turning on the news at the end of the day to see what the weather is going to be like tomorrow," explains Albers. "That way you won't be blindsided by your emotions." For example, if you know every Monday at 3pm you have a staff meeting with your boss that always stresses you out, go into the meeting fueled up on healthy whole grains and some protein (such as half of a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread). It will keep your blood sugar and energy levels up. Whatever you do, don't go into the meeting hungry because if you come out stressed, you'll grab whatever unhealthy food is in your path.
The bottom line: The more you're in tune with your emotions, the more you'll be in control of your eating. And your waistline will thank you.