In line with the Healthy Weight Awareness Month (January) I’d like to explore the psychology behind emotional eating and binge eating. As you read, I invite you to observe how the mind and body are connected along the gut-brain axis, which might give you an insight as to why a holistic approach to wellness could be much more beneficial to clients than relying entirely on one treatment modality.
Both emotional and binge eating can lead to weight gain and potentially to obesity, but the former are not prerequisites for the latter, nor is obesity a certain end result. Binge eating occurs less often, as it is marked by psychological distress. On the other hand, it is safe to assume that most of us engage in emotional eating from time to time, that is to say using food to soothe certain emotions rather than to satisfy physiological hunger. Regardless of the type of type of eating we engage in, when we serve ourselves some food our bodies get into a rest and digest state – the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, thus increasing digestion, making the heart rate slow down and leading to a feeling of relaxation (this is not the case if you are eating while stressed). Subsequently, as we continue to eat and digest the gut signals the brain to secrete endorphins (relaxing chemicals which act as pain relievers) and dopamine. The latter is part of the reward system, hence it makes us feel pleasure and satisfaction; unfortunately for our bodies, however, it is linked to eating junk food and other not so healthy products. In addition to endorphins and dopamine, serotonin (the “happy hormone”) may also come into the picture after eating foods containing the essential amino acid tryptophan (found in protein-based foods such as meats, dairy, seeds and raw cacao among others), or after eating foods with a high glycemic index (ex. ice cream, pizza and fries are examples of both categories). No wonder emotional eating is associated with reaching out for such comfort foods – the chemicals these consist of trigger the secretion of feel-good hormones in the brain! Chocolate deserves special mentioning here, because in addition to tryptophan, it consists of caffeine and theobromine (together these little guys give us an energy boost), as well as phenylethylalanine – a chemical secreted in the brain when we are in love!
Knowing how different food chemicals in the gut affect the neurotransmitters in the brain is important because it gives us an insight into the reasons behind emotional eating: when we experience pain, stress, anxiety, depression, sadness, loneliness, boredom or the need to reward ourselves, reaching out for comfort foods can give us a quick emotional fix – feelings of relaxation, pleasure, happiness and even love become predominant.
We can easily learn to associate feeling good with eating, which may become a problem if we rely on eating as the primary coping mechanism for emotional regulation. An additional red flag of emotional eating is when the latter turns into overeating (consuming more food than your body needs at a given time) and binge eating which is often followed by feelings of guilt and shame (hence the psychological distress mentioned earlier).
If you are someone who indulges in an occasional junk fiesta while stressed over a tight deadline I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. However, if you notice regular use of food to cope with emotions, decreasing number of other coping mechanisms, and binge eating, you might want to consider taking action for your wellbeing at the earliest signs. The more binge eating occurs, the more guilt and shame people experience, which they tend to soothe with their primary coping mechanism for emotional regulation – (more) food, turning this into a vicious circle.
Although I won’t be focusing on eating disorders here, I quickly want to mention that some people might develop binge eating disorder (BED) characterized by recurring episodes (at least once a week for 3 or more months) of binge eating, which include 3 or more of the following:
1. Eating very quickly;
2. Eating regardless of hunger cues, even if one is already full;
3. Eating until uncomfortably or painfully full;
4. Eating alone due to embarrassment about the type and quantity of food ingested;
5. Feelings of self-disgust, guilt, and depression.
Among various effects that this mental illness could have on people’s psychological and physical health, it has been observed that that BED could lead to more frequent emotional overeating episodes compared to those without BED.
Before I turn to some tools which you may find helpful, I’d like to highlight that eating disorders are included as mental illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), some of which could be life-threatening and therefore require help from trained practitioners. The suggestions that I offer here are meant at starting points for people who do not exhibit the corresponding symptoms (https://nedic.ca/eating-disorders-treatment/), but do engage in emotional and/or binge eating, the occurrence of which they hope to minimize.
As part of increasing your self-awareness I additionally invite you to think of ways to develop your . Research shows that disordered eating is linked to deficits in emotional processing such as understanding one’s own and others’ emotions, related physical sensations and facial expressions. Therefore, it is expected that improving your grip on the above may have positive influence on your eating patterns. You can start by observing people’s reactions, how those affect you and vice versa. Furthermore, use stressful situations as opportunities to examine how you tend to react: Where in your body do you feel anger or anxiety? What do you do after a frustrating event?
2. Eat mindfully and intuitively
When I say mindful eating, I’m not suggesting that you should eat with your eyes closed while telling your brain not to think; to the contrary, mindfulness is about being present in the moment and when you eat this means simply savouring the food. Focus on your senses: Is you food colorful and aesthetically pleasing? Do you begin salivating at the sight of your meal? Do you feel your stomach getting excited? What is the texture of the food, and most importantly how much do you enjoy the taste of what you eat? If you want to get even more mindful, you may take a couple deep breaths before beginning your meal, and I highly recommend that you eat in a relaxing environment away from technology. That’s all – enjoy!
Intuitive eating is related to the savouring aspect of mindful eating, since at its core lies the idea of giving ourselves permission to enjoy the pleasure of eating without feeling guilt or shame. In order for this to happen we first have to make peace with food (without dividing it into good or bad categories) and thus get rid of the dieting mentality. Easier said than done – especially in a culture that constantly feeds us messages about diet norms and the . Another foundational premise of intuitive eating is learning to recognize cues of physiological hunger and to notice what fullness feels like for each person individually. Intuitive eating also involves the process of respecting your body and honoring your feelings without using food, which in a sense is the opposite of emotional eating. Last but not least, this self-care approach to eating developed by two dieticians, incorporates suitable nutrition – you can explore what that means for your body and unique needs by reaching out to a trained dietician or nutritionist.
3. Healthy Diet
My guess is that this comes at no surprise. Although I’m passionate about gut health, I specialize in mental health, so here I’ll only briefly share some points for you to consider in the psychological struggle with emotional and/or binge eating. There are certain nutrients such as the long-chained omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium and a number of phytonutrients that influence the neuroplasticity of the brain, which is essential for the replacement of unhealthy coping mechanisms like emotional and/or binge eating with wellness practices. Some foods containing these nutrients also have moderation effects on depression, which as seen earlier is a contributing factor to emotional regulation through the use of food. Moreover, there is growing research data on the effects of the gut flora on people’s cognitive functions and mood. For instance, about 90% of the “happy hormone” serotonin, which is an important mood stabilizer, get produced in the gut (so called “second brain”). That is to say, feeding ourselves anti-inflammatory foods that help us maintain a healthy gut flora could moderate anxiety and have positive impact on our mood. Nourishing our bodies in such ways, combined with increased self-awareness, mindful and intuitive eating could thus facilitate emotional regulation without stuffing down our feelings with food.
I hope that this leaves you with enough food for thought (pun intended). I will be sharing a couple additional tools to help you minimize emotional and/or binge eating, along with other mental health information on Healing House’s social media, so be sure to follow us.
Best wishes for the New Year – may you all find the strength in you to overcome your challenges and become proudly resilient! I am here to support you on your journey.
If you would like more information or to make an appointment with Bobbie, you can book with her directly by clicking here.
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Jenkins, T. A., Nguyen, J. C., Polglaze, K. E., & Bertrand, P. P. (2016). Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients, 8(1), 56.
Foye, U., Hazlett, D. E., & Irving, P. (2019). Exploring the role of emotional intelligence on disorder eating psychopathology. Eating and weight disorders: EWD, 24(2), 299–306.
Konttinen, H., van Strien, T., Männistö, S., Jousilahti, P., & Haukkala, A. (2019). Depression, emotional eating and long-term weight changes: a population-based prospective study. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 16(1), 28.
LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104.
Macht M. (2008). How emotions affect eating: a five-way model. Appetite, 50(1), 1–11.
Macht, M., & Dettmer, D. (2006). Everyday mood and emotions after eating a chocolate bar or an apple. Appetite, 46(3), 332–336.
Schnepper, R., Georgii, C., Eichin, K., Arend, A. K., Wilhelm, F. H., Vögele, C., Lutz, A., van Dyck, Z., & Blechert, J. (2020). Fight, Flight, - Or Grab a Bite! Trait Emotional and Restrained Eating Style Predicts Food Cue Responding Under Negative Emotions. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 14, 91.
Wiedemann, A. A., Ivezaj, V., & Barnes, R. D. (2018). Characterizing emotional overeating among patients with and without binge-eating disorder in primary care. General hospital psychiatry, 55, 38–43.
Why should we care about vitamins?
Did you know that the tomato you eat today has drastically different nutritional values than a tomato thirty years ago?
Most of our foods are exceedingly vitamin and mineral deficient. The cause of this is oftentimes due to global soil degradation, the loss of plant variety, the large distance that food now travels, or due to man made chemical inputs, herbicides, and pesticides. Due to this, most individuals who eat a modern western diet, have nutritional deficiencies, and chronic nutritional deficiencies can have a huge impact on individual health.
Why Take Vitamins?
Supplements in our diet can be used as a preventative approach to maintaining or improving health and wellness. In some illnesses, vitamins are also used as a primary treatment method by trained practitioners for certain short-term and chronic illnesses.
Most often when we refer to vitamins we are not simply thinking about the most common types such as A, B, C, and D, but rather the more general idea of taking vitamins which alludes to minerals and other healthy nutritional choices as well.
This week is Folic Acid awareness week, and so we wanted to share with you the importance of this amazing water-soluble vitamin and discuss its impacts on health and wellness. Folic Acid is part of the B Vitamin complex, also known as B9. B complex vitamins are water soluble and are not stored very well in the body, however they are one of the most important vitamin complexes that our body needs as they are required daily for a variety of essential functions such as proper digestion and absorption, energy levels, sleep and wake cycles, proper brain function, and most importantly, our cellular metabolic functions.
This complex of vitamins works best together, and is also partially made in our native microbiome which is located in our small and large intestines.
B9 (Folic Acid) is considered to be one of the key water-soluble B vitamins. When it is consumed it is actively transported from our digestive tract into the blood where it acts as a coenzyme for a multitude of functions and often is converted to its active form, tetrahydrofolic acid (THEA), in the presence of niacin coenzyme (NADP) and vitamin C. Folic acid is stored in the liver, enough for 6 to 9 months of body use before deficiency symptoms might develop.
Most commonly folic acid is used to prevent anemia in pregnancy and is considered to relieve the symptoms of pernicious anemia.
The best source of folic acid is foliage from dark leafy greens, certainly something to consider when we realize that it is so commonly deficient in many culture's processed-food diets. Additionally, it is manufactured by our intestinal bacteria, so having a healthy microbiome is a key secondary component to healthy B vitamin levels.
What does Folic Acid Do?
Like many of the B vitamins, folic acid plays a key role in a large amount of key body processes, for example:
- It aids in red blood cell production by carrying the carbon molecule to the larger heme molecule, which is the iron-containing part of hemoglobin (the oxygen carrying molecule within red blood cells).
- Helps to breakdown and utilize dietary protein.
- Used in the formation of nucleic acids for RNA and DNA
- Has a fundamental role in the growth and reproduction of all cells.
- Allows for proper balancing of brain neurotransmitters that control mood, sleep and wake cycles, and maintained brain chemistry
If there is a deficiency of folic acid, there is decreased nucleic acid synthesis and cell division is hampered. This deficiency can play a large part in birth defects of a fetus and can lead to low birth weight or growth problems in infants. This is why folic acid is considered so key during pregnancy as it allows for proper balancing of brain neurotransmitter levels and development of an infants nervous system. In pregnancy women with a deficiency, the likelihood of neural tube defects in infants - including problems with anecephaly, encephalocele, and spinabifida is increased by folate deficiency.
Despite our knowledge about folic acid, it is still considered to be one of the most common vitamin deficiencies. Most commonly it proves to be a problem in the elderly, in alcoholics, in psychiatric patients, in epileptics, in women on birth control pills, and with those taking such drug therapies as sulfa antibiotics and tetracyclines which deplete folic acid by killing off the bacteria in our microbiome which produce it.
Those eating a standard North American Diet that is high in fats, meats, white flour, white sugar, and processed convenience foods may also develop folic acid deficiency.
When we consider the presentation of folic acid deficiency, it is good to know that it presents itself like many other B vitamin deficiencies, this being with anemia, fatigue, irritability, weight loss, headache, sore and inflamed tongue, diarrhea, heart palpitations, forgetfulness, hostility, and feelings of anxiety, depression, or often paranoia.
Because folic acid is so readily available in foods, this is a deficiency which can be easily remedied by implementing a more whole foods or seasonal diet.
Foods Rich in Folic Acid Include:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Leafy Green Vegetables such as Cabbage, Kale, Spring Greens, and Spinach
- Chickpeas and Kidney Beans
- Nuts and seeds
Additionally, we have a variety of plant allies that can assist with folic acid deficiency as well, and can be taken cooked or raw as a food.
Herbs that Contain Folic Acid
- Nettle (Urtica dioica)
- Chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris)
- Plantain Leaf (Plantago majora), do not eat in excess during pregnancy
- Oats (Avena sativa)
- Wild Yam Root (Diascorea villosa), do not take during pregnancy unless under supervision
So the next time you consider your B vitamins, consider folic acid, what it does, how it helps our amazing bodies, and the variety of plants that offer it in abundance.
Want to know more about folic acid?
Have questions about vitamins and supplements?
Want to know more about good supplement choices?
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In Health and Wellness,
Staying Healthy with Nutrition The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine by Elson M. Haas, MD. - Celestial Arts Publishing Berkeley California 2006
Practitioners on this site are not Medical Doctors (MD), nor are any of the suggestions or recommendations made on this site meant to be a substitute for advice from your MD, or as a substitute for any prescriptions you may be taking. Any suggestions followed will be the responsibility of the individual, and are stated with the intention of interest and education. If you have a health issue, please see your primary care physician first and foremost.