Feeling out of control around food, emotional eating, and the resulting weight gain can feel so hopeless. If you’re anything like I was when I was in grad school studying nutrition, I tried all the standard advice and nothing worked.
It wasn’t until I learned about the influence of specific hormones that I realized this extra eating was driven by powerful biological forces, and not a lack of self-control.
Is emotional eating leading to your weight gain?
I define emotional overeating as:
Eating more food than needed for physical satisfaction and nourishment to care for emotions, rather than caring for emotional needs in other ways.
Emotional eating isn’t a problem in itself – you emotionally eat when you celebrate holidays and birthdays. Or one-off occasions when food helps you feel better when you’re in distress.
Emotional eating becomes a problem when:
- It occurs frequently and leads to overeating.
- Makes you feel out of control around food.
- You routinely eat foods that steal your energy and health.
- It leads to guilt, anxiety and shame around eating and food.
Emotional eating can steal your joy and your peace.
Here’s an example of how emotional eating impacted Annette’s life:
She shared that over the span of a stressful 6 months she gained back 40# of the 60# she had lost following an insurance-sponsored sensible health maintenance program.
Transitions in her life and stress at work led to frequent binging. She said:
I felt totally useless and depressed, sadness, stress, anxiety, hopelessness weighed so heavily on me that food was my only comfort most days.
Some notice emotional eating when they are experiencing a rough season, like Annette.
Others have shorter seasons of emotional eating, or use smaller portions, like a bowl of ice cream every single night to take the edge off the day before going to bed.
Why do I emotionally eat?
Because it works.
Food has the power to make you feel good in the moment. If you struggle with emotional eating you don’t have a problem with willpower or self-control.
Furthermore, you may not realize you are using food to care for your emotions, especially if you feel generally well adjusted (check out Michelle’s story if that’s you).
You emotionally eat because it makes you feel good
Have you ever rewarded yourself with food after doing something difficult? Well, it works because there are biological reasons that make food feel rewarding. When you eat, brain regions for reward and pleasure are activated.
Sometimes I hear from women that they “just like food”. And while I can 100% understand that statement, there are other ways to feel good besides eating.
You emotionally eat because food allows you to avoid feeling bad
Similar to how food makes you feel good – that feeling good offers a brief reprieve from the discomfort of strong emotion (whether good or bad).
Whether you were never taught to manage your emotions, you have a history of trauma that makes you avoid them, or you need a break… food can provide a momentary numbing of discomfort.
Stress, anger, frustration, boredom, loneliness, happiness, joy… all can be tamped down with food. But by doing so you get stuck in the emotion and the discomfort looms pushing you to keep coping, usually by continuing to eat.
Unless emotions are processed or the “stress cycle is completed”, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski discuss in their book, Burnout, you will continue to reach for food to cope.
You emotionally eat for self-care
If you are someone who spends much of your day caring for other people and your responsibilities, and don’t get much time to process your emotions or engage in self-care, you may be using food for this purpose.
Eating as a form of self-care often happens when you need stress relief. Either at the end of an exhausting day, or perhaps after a difficult phone call. This is very common for women ages 45 and up.
What hormones cause emotional eating and weight gain
Emotional eating, when you feel out of control around food, has a biological component as well. There are several hormones that cause stress eating and weight gain:
#1 Cortisol – 🎵 Let’s talk about STRESS babe-eee 🎵
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in the body. It is elevated by both psychological and physiological stress. Check this blog article out to review all the factors that can raise cortisol (one of them is menopause!)
Cortisol makes you feel stressed out – thereby driving emotional eating for those who are susceptible.
It can also cause incredibly strong food cravings, which in my experience many women feel in the evening.
Consistently elevated cortisol causes weight gain because:
- You shift into fat-storage mode rather than fat-burning mode
- Cortisol moves fat from other parts of the body to the belly
- Many women report weight regain is triggered by a stressful event because it’s harder to maintain habits with the anxiety, poor sleep, and brain fog that can accompany cortisol issues.
To get help balancing your cortisol levels, grab my free guide “You’re Done Dieting but Still Want to Heal Emotional Eating”.
#2 Ghrelin – Why skipping meals doesn’t work… an appetite hormone with a funny name
Ghrelin is an appetite hormone that builds up the longer you’ve gone without eating.
Ghrelin makes you feel hungry and is low just after a meal. If you’ve ever wondered why fasting is hard for you or you can’t skip meals easily, it’s because you have biological processes, like Ghrelin, designed to help you nourish yourself.
In fact, in one study when people were given extra ghrelin, they ate 30% more during a meal.
Ghrelin may also contribute to weight gain as it promotes fat-storage rather than fat-burning.
Ghrelin becomes particularly relevant for people struggling with emotional eating. Emotional eating coinciding with high ghrelin can result in much more food intake and potentially even binge eating behavior.
To keep ghrelin at bay so you aren’t ravenously hungry and overeat, make sure to eat varied types of food regularly throughout the day.
#3 Leptin – Why you may struggle to feel full
Leptin is produced by fat cells to signal fullness. As you use your fat stores for fuel, the amount of leptin decreases, and you don’t feel full anymore.
This is important to understand for those who have lost weight, as you may have trouble feeling full as your fat cells shrink and need some help to manage this effect.
To address leptin issues, healing emotional eating so you can easily make healthy choices and movement can help, as can getting better sleep and lowering triglycerides if they are high.
What about estrogen and post-menopausal changes?
Weight loss can be harder due to metabolism changes from declining levels of estrogen in menopause, but it’s not impossible.
Menopause can raise the stress hormone cortisol, as can restrictive diets. This double-whammy often impacts post-menopausal women who find the old diets that used to work for weight loss don’t work anymore.
Add to that, the years surrounding menopause can be some of the most stressful in a woman’s life and you have a recipe for emotional eating and weight gain.
3 Nutrition Tips to Help Balance Hormones to Stop Emotional Eating and Weight Gain
While nutrition alone won’t solve emotional eating, it can often be a helpful place to start for hormone balance.
If you’d like to learn other strategies to heal emotional eating by caring for your hormones, RSVP for the next Masterclass, “How I Achieve Freedom from Overeating without Feeling Deprived and Learned to Love my Body Again”.
- Ensure adequate protein throughout the day. Protein stabilizes blood sugar, which in turn stabilizes cortisol. You can try aiming for 10-20g of protein at each meal and snack and see how that impacts your food cravings.
Protein also can boost metabolism, helping with weight loss.
- Focus on Plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
These foods are high in fiber so they can carry any waste-products of hormones out of the body and high in phytochemicals which help your liver to better process the hormones when your body doesn’t need them anymore. Fiber has also been associated with weight loss and helps you feel full.
- Get curious about food cravings. Next time you have the urge to eat, check in with yourself. Are you physically hungry? If not, are there emotions that you are trying to comfort or avoid by eating? Understanding what is happening in the moment will allow you to better care for yourself.