How many times have you found yourself at the bottom of a pint of Peanut Butter Cup Ben & Jerry’s after a bad day? Though every spoonful may have tasted sweet and creamy, did consuming the nearly 1,400 calories really make your day better? Emotional eating is especially rampant during the stressful holiday season, but women go on emotionally charged binges year-round. Susan Albers, Psy.D., author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, has 10 calorie-free ways to cope with stress.
Why do women turn to food for comfort?
Whether you grew up with a mom who gave you a cookie every time you got hurt or you developed a must-eat reflex out of loneliness, emotional eating is an automatic response to stress for many women. Albers says emotional eating is like a knee-jerk reaction that has developed due to repetition. “In other words, we’ve done it enough times to know it works quickly to calm and comfort ourselves,” she explains. “If this sounds like you, don’t feel bad. The majority of women have not been formally taught alternative ways to deal with feelings. There isn’t a class in elementary school or high school that lays out what you do when you are stressed. The result: learn as you go.”
The media is partly to blame for emotional eating
According to Albers, the connection between food and comfort is made quickly and is hard to break once established, especially because the media promotes this kind of coping mechanism. “How many times have you seen a woman eating ice cream on a sitcom or dramatic movie immediately post-breakup?” Albers asks. “Look closely at ads for chocolates and sweets. They sell the promise of emotional benefits, such as bliss, love, escape and feeling good. This media slant gives us the subtle perception that it is OK and ‘normal’ to comfort yourself with calories.”
We are wired to eat when stressed
Before you beat yourself up or get mad at your mom for trying to make everything all better with food, consider your body’s biological response to stress. “Eating in response to emotion is a natural, hard-wired response that we all have,” explains Albers. “We can thank the stress hormone cortisol for igniting cravings for sugary, fatty foods during moments of stress.”
However, while emotional eating is a “natural response,” Albers says it doesn’t mean that eating is the only way to get your cortisol levels in check. She recommends soothing activities like relaxation, sleep, drinking hot tea and other non-food activities to help to rebalance your cortisol levels. “I liked the classic slogan, ‘Calgon, take me away’ [referring to the bubble bath commercial] because it is a perfect and rare example of an ad that actually taught women an alternative, healthy way to cope with stress.”
Eating feels so good, so what’s the big deal?
Right now you may be thinking there is no way that anything could be more comforting than a giant warm cinnamon roll oozing with icing or a heaping plate of pasta carbonara, but Albers assures us that food is only a short-term solution to stress and can even be a factor in more stress in the long term. “Immediately food ‘works’ to comfort and soothe yourself — we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t give us benefits, right? But without another alternative, non-food coping mechanism, emotional eating can lead to excess weight gain.” Some experts indicate that emotional eating is linked to 75 percent of overeating. So, for many women, just finding a way to cope with emotional eating will make a huge difference to their waistlines and health.
The benefits of non-food coping mechanisms
Food is readily accessible and seems to be the easiest (and most delicious) way to escape from stress but it isn’t good for your emotional or physical health. Albers recommends learning calorie-free skills to cope with feelings as a way to dramatically improve your health and weight as well as give you life-long, guilt-free coping skills. “It can help you take charge of your emotions, which in turn, makes you feel confident and happier,” Albers explains. “Let’s face it, women have stressful lives and need healthy ways to cope all day long.”