Many of us deal with breakups and bad days by soothing ourselves with a bar of chocolate and a pint of ice cream. These foods taste good, but is there another reason why we look to sweet or fatty foods for comfort? A recent study suggests that a hormonal connection between our stomach and our brain can have an effect on our mood when certain foods are eaten.
This study compared two groups of people – those who were fed saturated fats and those who were fed a saline solution. In order to circumvent any emotional influences that might come from seeing food, the test subjects were "fed" through an unmarked stomach tube.
Once fed, the subjects were exposed to sad sounding classical music and shown pictures of people expressing sadness. As a whole, those who were fed the saline solution responded more negatively to mood tests given throughout the process than those who were fed with fat.
Another aspect of this study involved MRI scans of the subjects’ brain. These scans showed that activity in the part of the brain that deals with sadness was dampened in those who were provided fats.
This study demonstrates that eating in response to emotions goes deeper than the simple enjoyment of tastes and textures. Giovanni Cizza, MD, an obesity and neuroendocrinology researcher at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), in Bethesda, MD, explains that the connection between food and mood is "really independent of pleasant stimuli. It is even more rooted in our biology."
Fighting Emotional Eating
With results like this, it’s easy to throw in the towel when it comes to emotional eating. After all, if it is part of human biology, why fight it? Susan Albers, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, discourages this type of thinking in her book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. "Given the strong soothing effect of food on a biological level, we have to work even harder to find ways to soothe and comfort ourselves without calories." Fighting the urge to eat emotionally can be difficult, but it must be done.
If you are worried about emotional eating, the first thing to do is determine if emotions are influencing your eating habits. Do you eat when you do not feel hungry? Do you find that the food you do eat does not give you satisfaction? Do you experience cravings that are triggered by emotions? All of these behaviors are factors in emotional eating.
Identifying what triggers your emotional eating is an effective way to combat this habit. Consider keeping a journal of what you eat. Jot down the emotions you feel while you are eating. After a few days you may be able to notice a pattern linking negative emotions to unnecessary consumption.
Eliminating emotional eating is not likely to be successful unless you can find something to put in its place. A low calorie drink like black or green tea can help soothe stress levels, so try drinking a cup instead of snacking. Breathing exercises can also help you get an emotional break from a stressful situation. Find a distraction that works best for you.
Finally, be kind to yourself while breaking away from emotional eating. No habit is broken in a day. It is okay to make mistakes while you are learning. If you stumble and eat something you would rather avoid, keep on trying. With practice you will gain better control over your diet.
When Are Comfort Foods Okay?
The results of this study do not spell the end for Haagen-Dazs. "Evolution has provided us with, if you wish, an over-the-counter anti-anxiety or anti-sadness product," says Dr. Cizza. While consistent consumption of high calorie foods can cause health problems, a treat here and there will not cause any harm. If you do decide to indulge after a bad day, follow Dr. Cizza’s advice: "Don’t feel too guilty, but try to limit what you eat and maybe later cut down on something else."
The biological link between the food we eat and the way we feel helps us gain a better understanding of why we make the choices we do. Researchers continue to examine the link between our stomachs and our minds. Until we come to a total understanding of this topic, moderation in what we eat is the key to health and happiness.