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Getting Off the Roller Coaster of Emotional Eating

With spending so many hours inside, it can be so easy to seek comfort in food. Especially when some of us have enormous stock piles of tasty snacks and quick shelf stable carbohydrates like cereal, pasta and rice. Perhaps emotional eating is a new phenomena or we’ve struggled over the years with binge eating. Binge-eating is defined as consuming unusually large amounts of food typically in a short period of time and feeling unable to stop eating. During these stressful times we want to maintain emotional, mental and physical balance. Ensuring that we are getting the right nutrients without the self harm of overeating is also vital to our immune system and sleep.

I hope these strategies will help you get off the emotional eating roller coaster for good and find renewed peace around food and body.

Make Real Balanced Meals a Priority

Like it or not we have to eat. By scheduling healthy balanced breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks, we ensure that our bodies will get what they need. Most importantly, prioritizing meals keeps us satiated. Skipping meals or choosing foods that are not necessarily nourishing can leave us hungry making it easier to binge later.

Our bodies crave routine and balance. By setting specific times of day to eat meals that have names like “breakfast,” “lunch” and “dinner” ensures that we are attuned to our appropriate hunger cues. As a result we will not fall into the trap of misinterpreting boredom, frustration or thirst for hunger. Similarly chips, crackers, pretzels, cookies and unfortunately nuts, seeds and dried fruit can be overeating triggers for some of us. When emotions strike, we can find ourselves easily binging on them. One simple strategy in binge prevention is to not have these foods in our house at all. If we live with others, who enjoy these foods safely in moderation, we might need to have them not eat them in front of us or keep them in their room. Studies show that the mere sight of food can cause us to eat even if we are not hungry.   

Pacify the Craving Part of Our Brain

Ever wonder where craving comes from? We can thank the insula, which is a prune-size slab of brain tissue responsible for feelings of guilt and anxiety as well as cravings. Acting like a sort of receiving zone, the insula assesses the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings to bring about actions, like eating. Information from the insula is sent to other parts of the brain involved in decision making. Studies on nicotine, cocaine and alcohol addiction have shown alterations in the insula and its connectivity to other regions of the brain of addicts. This allows the addict to succumb to the craving despite the negative consequences.

Though it might be tempting to consider having the insula surgically removed to stop our craving for chocolate cake, it’s not a solution. Without the insula, we would have complete apathy and would loose our ability to distinguish between fresh and rotten foods. Probably one of the most effective ways for calming the insula is through daily meditation. Through daily meditation, we enhance our self-regulatory processes and decrease our emotional reactivity. As a result, we can start to see our thoughts about food as a neutral behavioral option rather than an inescapable need.

Spontaneous thoughts do not need a behavioral response. Meditation can help us to learn to accept these thoughts, letting them pass without further elaboration. With a consistent daily meditation practice of even as little as 5-10 minutes, we will experience more control over our cravings overtime. 

Carbohydrates as Antidepressants?

Have you ever felt like you were wired to binge of chips, bread or sweets? Well, guess what. We are. First, our brains are fueled on glucose. Our brains seek out simple carbs for quick glucose. But for some of us, another factor is also at play — serotonin.

Chronically low levels of serotonin can drive us to search for carbohydrates. This is because when carbohydrates are consumed they allow us to preferentially increase levels of the amino acid, tryptophan. Trytophan is the precursor of serotonin. Conditions of low serotonin like depression and PMS or the more severe form of PMS (Premenstrual Dystrophic Disorder (PMDD) can lead to overeating of carbohydrate because we are seeking tryptophan to quickly boost serotonin levels to lift our mood. The dark side is that this feeling is short lived. After a carb or sugar binge, we can drift into remorse and inevitable weight gain. Making sure that we are eating enough complete protein on a daily helps us maintain a more constant supply of tryptophan for serotonin production.

Other factors at play in low serotonin levels are cofactors, which are nutrients that facilitate biochemical reactions in the body. As far as serotonin is concerned these include Vitamin B6, SamE, and niacin.

If we think we may have a serotonin imbalance, it best to work with a trained professional like a naturopathic doctor or psychiatrist rather than experimenting on ourselves.

Rewarding Ourselves without Food

Why do we over indulge or crave certain foods? Because they literally make us feel good. Biting into a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, releases dopamine and to a lesser extent norepinephrine and epinephrine. That hit of dopamine along with the other neurotransmitters is associated with the feeling of reward. This is problematic in two ways.

First, the sensation doesn’t last so we need to consume more in an effort to achieve or prolong the feeling. This can escalate where the initial taste and mouth feel is no longer the dopamine activator but the high of binging is.

The other issue is that we may inadvertently cause a new behavior loop to form. Why do we do most of the things we do, especially our harmful habits? Because we have wired them into our behavior reward loops. Basically we have connected one activity to another activity. This is exactly what Pavlov demonstrated with his ringing of the bell dog saliva experiments.

The solution is not to deny ourselves dopamine hits per se. Rather we should find other ways to activate this feeling of reward whether it’s because we’ve finished a task or we need to pacify our emotions. Some of the best, healthy ways to activate dopamine release backed by science are exercise, sunshine, listening to music, having a conversation with a close friend, and sex. So when the urge to reward our self with a bowl of ice cream strikes, we can turn on our favorite Spotify playlist and rock on out instead. 

Getting Off the Roller Coaster of Emotional Eating


Ivy Branin, ND

Dr. Ivy Branin is a naturopathic doctor and founder of Simplicity Health Associates located in New York City. Dr. Ivy received her degree in Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. She received her bachelor’s degree in biochemical engineering with a minor in French from Rutgers University. She specializes in mood disorders, women’s health and hormonal imbalances, acne and gastrointestinal conditions.

APA Reference
Branin, I. (2020). Getting Off the Roller Coaster of Emotional Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/getting-off-the-roller-coaster-of-emotional-eating/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 May 2020 (Originally: 3 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 May 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.