Does a bad day or a fight with your spouse make you reach for the cookie jar, the ice cream or that fresh loaf of crusty bread? Sometimes our emotional eating patterns are obvious and we KNOW we’re eating because we feel bad. But it’s not always that easy to spot.
Often we don’t even realize when we’re eating to alleviate some underlying or unconscious emotional turmoil. Sometimes we think we just “want a bagel” even though it’s 11am, and we’re not even hungry.
One of the biochemical causes for carbohydrate cravings is an imbalance in brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Dopamine is correlated with reward, motivation, wanting and craving. Dopamine stimulates an intense rush of pleasure, similar to a hit of cocaine and also causes an increase in energy, less need for sleep or food and focused attention. When the brain is experiencing the effects of a dopamine imbalance, it can create an overwhelming urge to consume carbohydrates ASAP!
Interestingly, author and love researcher Helen Fisher has noted that newly “love struck” couples have higher levels of dopamine.
The psychology of food cravings also highlights the obvious connections we make between food and feeling loved or having fun. If you fall and scrape your knee and your mom gives you a cookie to make you feel better, you get the message that food can be used to alleviate pain and suffering. Happy family memories often revolve around holiday meals and celebrations. For many of us, fun times are correlated with high-sugar and high-fat foods. If you grew up in North America, chances are you hunted for Easter eggs, went trick-or-treating at Halloween or had cotton candy at the fair. Is it any wonder that we crave sugar or comfort foods if we’re feeling anxious, alone, unloved or like life is no fun?
If we can hold a posture of recognizing that when thoughts of food obtrusively enter our mind when we’re not hungry, it likely means we NEED something, other than Haägen Dazs Peanut Butter ice cream that is. It means we’re feeling anxious, lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, deprived, angry; or just about any other “negative” emotion and what we really need is to be more present with our feelings. We may need to honor ourselves and our needs a little more and begin to cultivate the happiness and fulfillment that we may be missing.
Try this: The next time you’re craving carbohydrates, put your hand on your heart and say “I love you” to yourself. Don’t let the words be empty, if you can’t feel the love for yourself, imagine saying them to someone you can feel love for. The key is to feel love in that moment so you can balance your brain chemistry and cultivate your self-love.