For many of us, food is intimately connected to our most formative experiences. Cultures across the globe use feasts to celebrate weddings and holidays and to mourn at funerals.
In America, we associate food with the seasons—watermelon and barbeque in the summer, pumpkin spice in autumn, and rich hot cocoa during the winter.
Food has a hold on our personal emotions as well. We seek out "treats" when we're happy and crave comfort foods when we're hurting.
What about the psychology of food ties our feelings and our eating habits so closely together? Why do you crave unhealthy snacks, and what's the best way to start breaking free from emotional eating?
For insight into those questions and more, keep reading.
The Connection Between Diet and Mood
The first step in unraveling the relationship between food and mood is understanding that while cravings and hunger may be hard to distinguish, they're entirely different things. Hunger is the result of your body (namely, your stomach) recognizing a physiological need for calories. When this happens, your body releases a hormone called ghrelin that tells your brain it's time to eat.
Cravings, on the other hand, come directly from the brain. They're your body's way of saying you're short on nutrients that are essential for your health and wellness. If you're craving carbs and grains, for example, your brain could be warning you of a chromium or nitrogen deficiency.
Unfortunately, these same mechanisms that help you get enough nutrients can backfire. The reason? A cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol.
The Emotional Eating Feedback Loop
Cortisol is often called the "stress hormone" because it's responsible for our fight-or-flight response. It's also in charge of telling our bodies how to use the calories we have stored as fats, proteins, and carbs.
In highly-stressed people, eating carbohydrates can lower these hormone levels and help you calm down. If you've ever wanted to devour an entire loaf of bread while feeling stressed, you have cortisol to thank.
When you eat that bread, your brain gets an influx of dopamine. This chemical essentially tells your brain, "that was good, do it again!" You'll also get increased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for positive moods.
Eating refined, processed, and otherwise "junk" foods can give us a hit of these happy chemicals that's similar to taking drugs. When your brain is feeling low on joy, it sends out signals that tell you to eat something to boost your neurotransmitter levels again.
Every time you reach for junk food when you're sad or stressed, you teach your brain that it's the quickest way to regain homeostasis. The longer you let this pattern continue, the more intense your cravings will get, and the harder it is to stop.
It's a vicious cycle. But with the right approach, it can be broken.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Even when you understand the origin of your cravings, emotional eating is a difficult beast to slay. Along with taking time to address your unmet emotional needs through therapy or meditation, getting control of your food intake is a two-step process.
Find Healthier Alternatives to Your Favorite Comfort Foods and Drinks
Step one of conquering your emotional eating habits is to stop being afraid of losing your favorite foods. This fear only contributes to more food anxiety, causing your cravings to spike.
For those of us who crave chocolate, try giving up your sugar and dairy-filled candy bars for organic vegan dark chocolate. A little of this treat goes a long way in satisfying cravings and is also filled with antioxidants.
Bread lovers have a harder job, especially if you're trying to eat a keto or paleo diet. When you must indulge in bread, look for “grain-free” carb products like grain-free bread, bagels, waffles and chips.
Wine connoisseurs have it easy—they can switch to a chemical-free vegan option. Ours only has 1 gram of sugar in the bottle, is 100% chemical-free, and infused with a tasteless “day after remedy” to help you say goodbye to headaches and hangovers.
No matter what you crave when you're bored or feeling down, there's an alternative that's more in line with a wellness-focused lifestyle.
Eating an Intuitive Diet
It's no surprise to anyone who's been on a traditional restrictive diet that most of them eventually fail. When you tell yourself you can't eat your favorite foods, you're more likely to crave them and binge.
That's where intuitive eating comes in. Developed by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyze Resch in the early 1990s, this practice requires you to become deeply in tune with both your emotional and physical needs. It rejects traditional diet philosophies in favor of self-care and trusting your body's intelligence.
With intuitive eating, you take the time to identify where your desire for food is coming from. Is it intrinsic (based on physical hunger) or extrinsic (based on mood or situation)? If it's intrinsic, eat—you shouldn't have to go hungry.
If it's extrinsic, look deeper into why you're craving food. Is this void something other than food can fill? If so, try doing that activity, be it exercise, meditation, or another self-care activity.
Even so, you don't have to always deny your extrinsic desires. It's okay to eat your comfort foods in moderation. The best part is that if you've already done the work to find more nutritious comfort foods, you can rest assured that you're fueling your body for healthy living even when you indulge a bit.
Along with helping you break the emotional hold food has on you, intuitive eating can lower cortisol levels by reducing your stress around food. You may find that over time, you stop craving unhealthy foods as often.
Using the Psychology of Food to Your Advantage
It's far too easy to let mood-based eating take control of your life. The more you understand the physiology and psychology of food, though, the more you'll become aware of your body's physical and emotional needs.
Are you ready to start looking for replacements for your unhealthy comfort foods? Our certified vegan, chemical-free wines have all the benefits of wine without the headache and other negative effects. It's a great part of a well-rounded diet that lets you indulge on occasion without the guilt.
To try it and see for yourself, head over to our shop to browse our selection of SMART wines.