If you reach for chocolate or cake when you are sad or angry, you are not alone. Many women do. But why do we reach for cake when we are sad – instead of something healthy like spinach or fresh fruit? Emotional eating is not rare. The Germans even have a special word for it – Kummerspeck – It literally translates as “grief bacon”. In Singapore, 30 percent of us are overweight, while 10 per cent are obese – and you can bet some of that excess weight is grief bacon weighing us down.
Sugar and fat stimulate the reward centres in your brain and produce dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical, explains psychologist Sarah McMahon, who specialises in disordered and emotional eating.
High glycemic foods like sugar, white rice, white bread and white noodles are quickly absorbed by your body. This leads to brief feelings of calmness, followed by intense feelings of hunger, less self-control and the need for more, more, more. It’s like sugar and fat are addictive – you get a brief high then you need more. So while emotional eating starts as a way to soothe yourself it quickly becomes a habit that is hard to break.
Early humans needed this stimulation to lead them to calorie-rich sweet and fatty foods. Back in prehistoric times we needed as many calories as we could find to stay alive. But in modern times this drive to eat our emotions is leading to an epidemic of obesity.
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better – it is using food to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach. Unfortunately, emotional eating does not fix emotional problems. It usually makes you feel worse and you probably also feel guilty for overeating.
Stress is one of the main reasons we eat when we are not hungry. A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who faced stress at work were more likely to eat when they felt anxious or depressed. “When we do not feel safe and well we often instinctively believe food will help us,“ says Sarah McMahon.