Emotional Eating: Breaking the Cycle

Posted: Feb 27 in Nutrition by

Emotional Eating: Breaking the CycleHave you ever wondered why the way we feel has such a profound effect on our appetite and eating behavior? Happiness, loneliness, depression, boredom, fatigue, stress and guilt are more powerful appetite stimulators than being “physically” hungry.

While most individuals refer to the physical sense of being hungry as “hunger,” this is not where most eating behavior originates. When we’ve skipped meals and our stomachs are growling, this is a very powerful motivator to eat as our stomachs release a hormone called Ghrelin, which is a strong hormonal appetite stimulator.

However, this does not account for the majority of our eating behavior. To understand where our “appetite” comes from, it is important to think about the structure of our brain. When we consciously try to “eat less” so that we can lose weight, we are using our frontal cortex–the part of our brains that we use to solve math problems and make decisions. We might just as well use this part of our brain to “breathe less.” We can hold our breath for a short time, but then our lower brain functions will kick in and force us to start breathing.

Trying to “eat less” over time unfortunately will have the same outcome. Willpower will only carry us so far before our lower brain functions kick in. In the case of eating behavior, our appetite center is located in our hypothalamus, well below the level of what we can control with our frontal cortex. The hypothalamus is also where many of our emotions are centered. So in fact, it is the emotional center of our brain that is directly responsible for most of our “emotional eating” behavior.

Like breathing, eating is a very primitive survival type reflex. So, just as it is difficult to stop breathing, stop sweating, lower our blood pressure or raise our blood sugar, it is difficult to consciously “eat less.” And, because the eating center is located smack dab in the middle of the emotional center of our brain, it is no wonder that our feelings have a direct influence on our appetite.

Instead of trying to classify “hunger” as “physical” or “emotional,” it is important to recognize that most human eating behavior is grounded in our emotional state. If we can recognize and accept this basic fact, then perhaps we can work on improving our emotional state. That’s why I always tell patients that my main goal is to be “happy and healthy,” not to “eat less.” Being happy and healthy will lead not only to lifelong weight control, but lifelong happiness.

-By Ethan Lazarus MD, Obesity Medicine Specialist, Clinical Nutrition Center

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