The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Stressed is Desserts Spelt Backwards!

Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Aug 30, 2012

Have you ever stopped to think about why you eat the foods that you do? Often food selections and the actual act of eating are done unconsciously so you might not have put much thought into it. There are actually a number of factors that influence our daily food choices. Taste is a big factor of course (Mmmm, this totally makes me think of a gooey chocolate brownie); convenience and /or time (am I eating the left over scraps off of the kids plates because I have to get them down for naps and am starving or can I take the time to make a nice salad to enjoy); availability is another (boy would I love a good New England clam chowder on a cold winter day but being that I live in Texas that is a little tough).  Culture and religion also come into play. My sister once dated a guy who found it hard to join us for Sunday dinner because “dinner” consisted of sitting at the table for three hours (or sometimes more) enjoying each other’s company and eating several courses of food (can you guess, I am Italian). And come to think of it this also serves as a great example of how social factors influence our choices. We also choose food based on our performance, nutrition, and health needs and values and habits as well. When I get home from work I automatically go to our cabinet where we keep crackers and pretzels and first thing when I wake up without even thinking about it I grab a banana. One other factor comes to mind and that is emotions. Ever grabbed the tub of ice cream when feeling down or eaten a whole bag of chips out of sheer boredom?

Comfort foods are called that for a reason. Your brain chemistry actually changes when you eat certain foods! Carbohydrates, for instance, cause serotonin to be released in your brain which is a hormone that enhances feelings of calmness and contentment and improves mood.  Fat can cause endorphins to be released which provide us with a natural high. When done on occasion and in proper amounts this is probably not a big deal, after all, not only is food meant to be enjoyed but eating _______ (fill in the blank—for me it is that gooey chocolate brownie) every now and then is part of a healthy eating plan. But if this leads to overeating and overeating on a regular basis this cannot only sabotage your health and your weight loss / weight management goals, it can actually have the opposite effect on your mood and lead to more stress, anxiety, and despair—not to mention, guilt. Often this is termed emotional eating which is characterized by the desire to eat for nonphysical reasons or reasons outside of your body’s need for energy or fuel. Emotional triggers can be from both positive emotions like happiness and excitement and negative ones like stress, anger and loneliness. Interestingly what we choose to eat differs one, on gender and two, on whether we are eating in response to positive or negative emotions.

So how can we prevent ourselves from going too far?

  • First when you have the urge to eat, distinguish if you are truly hungry or not. If not, write down what it was that caused you to want to eat.
  • Your body needs fuel to be able to cope with and handle stress so be sure you are well fueled so that you don’t become overly hungry which can lead to poor food choices and overeating. Making healthy food choices that contain carbohydrates and fats can have the same effect on our brain chemistry as unhealthy food choices.
  • Have a glass of water. Then decide if you still “need” to eat.
  • Remember that comfort foods do not need to be off limits entirely. Moderation is the key. Separate out that bag of chips into smaller serving sizes in storage bags. If ice cream is your thing, buy 1 serving size containers or even individually wrapped ice cream products like ice cream sandwiches.
  • Find something to distract yourself. Call a friend, take a bath, or look at old family pictures.
  • Don’t keep foods around that you know you will overindulge in. Save them for when you are in more of a controlled setting/situation.
  • Write down everything that you put in your mouth. This simple act often raises our awareness about what and how much we are eating as well serves as a trigger to think twice before putting it in our mouth.
  • Find alternatives to dealing with stress: practice meditation, deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  • Exercise! The same chemicals that are released from food to boost mood are also released when we exercise.
What is your “fill in the blank” food and what are ways you combat emotional eating?