It's the night before your first midterm and the items on your to-do list are piling up by the minute. You need to study for your 8 AM exam, figure out when to begin that essay you've been putting off all week, put the finishing touches on your internship application, and that's just the beginning. You're feeling burnt out from a long day of classes and stressed about the amount of work in front of you. Even though you just ate dinner an hour ago, you decide to open up a bag of chips – but before you know it, they're gone.
Sound familiar? This is called emotional eating. Her Campus talked with Katie Clark, a Registered Dietitian practicing in California and Assistant Clinical Professor of Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, to help you deal with stressed-out binges and learn more about this issue.
What is emotional eating?
Clark explains, “Emotional eating is using your emotions as a driver for eating, as opposed to listening to your hunger cues.” Rather than waiting to feel hunger in order to eat, an emotional eater might dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry's after a bad break-up or snack every ten minutes while studying. Triggers are as varied as the roadblocks you encounter on a daily basis: school-related stress, relationship issues, financial pressures, exhaustion, and feelings of anger, boredom or loneliness.
Why does emotional eating occur?
While it's rare to think, “Hmm, I'm stressed out. I'll eat a cookie to make myself feel better,” that's more or less the thought process your mind goes through. Clark explains, “Emotional eating can help temporarily fulfill a need.” That need could be stress, anger, sadness, or fatigue, among others. In the short-term, eating provides sensory pleasure and gives us an energy boost, which is why it makes us feel better. It's easy to form a mental association between eating and feeling better, which is why some people turn to emotional eating as a method of satisfying their needs when they're feeling down. The trouble with this behavior, however, is that it can turn into an unhealthy habit in the long run.
Why is emotional eating unhealthy?
“If emotional eating is a temporary, infrequent occurrence, it may not have serious side effects,” says Clark. Sure, you might experience the occasional sugar crash after a single cookie binge, but indulging in food when you're not hungry from time to time isn't terribly harmful.
However, constantly turning to food whenever you're feeling down can quickly add up to unwanted pounds. It's easy to rely on convenient pizza deliveries and fast food joints when you're spending hours with your nose buried in textbooks, but those unhealthy choices can have a negative impact over time. One collegiette™ discovered the effects of emotional eating firsthand. “Last year, I found myself eating to distract myself from the long hours of homework. But over the summer, I wasn't stressed out about school, so I lost twenty pounds without changing my exercise routine at all,” says Katrina, a freshman at the College of Wooster.
Furthermore, emotional eating can perpetuate an unhealthy diet. Clark says, “For an individual who engages in emotional eating regularly, provided that the eating leads to excessive caloric intake, it may lead to weight gain, which in turn increases the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.” Additionally, an unhealthy diet can make you feel tired and sluggish, which ultimately makes the immediate situation – the research paper you haven't started yet, your fight with your boyfriend, or whatever else is bothering you – even worse.