Is Emotional Overeating Really Emotional?

A lot of diet books claim that emotional overeating is the chief saboteur of weight loss. The idea is that if you followed their diet and exercise plan, you would lose weight, but your darn emotions keep leading you to binges on chocolate cake or cheese pizza. So, basically, you're doomed to be overweight until you see a therapist and finally unravel the emotional web that's obviously keeping you from looking fit and fabulous.

This is a cop out. It's an excuse that diet gurus hand out when their diets fail. It gives them a reason to blame you and not the inadequacies of their plan.

Am I saying that emotional overeating is a myth? Not exactly. There's no doubt that feelings of loneliness, depression, hopelessness or frustration can lead to overeating. I'm just saying we're approaching this from the wrong direction.

We're all going to face situations that bring up negative emotions. It's one of those facts of life we just can't get away from. And this is nothing new. It's unfortunately something that's been common to basically anyone who's taken a breath on this planet since the beginning of time. So why is emotional overeating suddenly a problem now?

Here's what we need to be asking: "Why are my emotions driving me to overeat? Why can't I handle stress without turning to food?" And today I want to explore this from a physiological point of view.

When you have deficiencies in certain brain chemicals like dopamine or serotonin, your body will be driven to replenish these neurotransmitters in the most immediately effective way possible. If you're short on dopamine, you likely have trouble dealing with emotional situations and find yourself crushed by everyday problems. And your body might drive you to things like chocolate or wine (or even romance novels!) to get a dopamine fix. Similarly, if you're short on serotonin you might feel depressed, angry or hopeless and will be attracted to comfort foods like bread, pasta, and cookies, all of which temporarily drive serotonin levels through the roof. This is why after a stressful day or a fight with your spouse you might feel compelled to stuff your face with rocky road ice cream.

The interesting part comes in here: if we have healthy levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, we are actually more capable of handling stressful situations. That means that while you may not feel exactly giddy after listening to your boss rail on you about a deadline, you'll still be able to walk past the vending machine without stopping for a candy bar to mellow you out. When we have healthy neurotransmitter levels, we won't need our standby comfort foods because our bodies have plenty of brain chemicals to "comfort" us with.

So, it makes you wonder: are you overeating because you're emotional? Or are you emotional because your brain chemicals are out of whack?

Julia Ross, author of The Diet Cure and The Mood Cure, knows a great deal about the connection between our cravings and our brains. Check out the video below:

How to Naturally Boost Neurotransmitter Levels

There are two ways to make sure you have plenty of the neurotransmitters that provide a sense of well-being and energy:

1) Give your body what it needs to produce these vital brain chemicals.

2) Don't use your brain chemicals up faster than your body can produce them.

So, it's important to:

  • Eat the right fats. Saturated fats like butter and coconut oil feed your brain.
  • Eat enough. (I say this a lot, don't I?) A constant state of calorie deprivation is a surefire way to cause deficiencies in neurotransmitters.
  • Avoid over-exercising. Being active is great, don't get me wrong. But training for a marathon is a good way to use up brain chemicals real fast. It's not a good idea if you're trying to boost your neurotransmitters.
  • Enjoy some downtime. I know, this isn't easy in our fast-paced society, but taking a breather every day does help restore your body's ability to cope with stress.

Believe me, when your neurotransmitters are in good shape, your perspective on life totally changes. No, it's not perfect (serotonin doesn't make you superhuman). But you're able to cope when things aren't going so well--and without turning to cheescake for help.

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

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