Health + Wellness

Breaking Bad Eating Habits: The Reasons May Be Deeper Than You Think

July 13, 2016

Man eating salad.

Words by Kathy Iandoli

Bad eating habits can manifest themselves in different ways. Maybe at lunch, the closest place to your job is a fast food restaurant. Could be that a can of soda is easier to carry, or bottom line, it flat out tastes better than a bottle of water. We’re not here to guilt. But maybe you just like junk food and don’t care about its negative effects until diabetes, hypertension or heart disease roll around. No matter the reasoning, too often, emotional eating conjures up images of crying women who circumstantially binge on junk food when disaster hits.

And you’re right, there is a societal gender bias, but it’s also one that’s been implanted in our minds thanks to the media, film, even music. But emotional eating can impact men just as much as it is does women. Stress is an emotion too, so just because you’re the perpetual tough guy, doesn’t mean your emotions aren’t there.

We all know how to kick bad eating habits on a surface level: drink more water, add more vegetables, and substitute sweets with fruit. However, there may be a mental connection between how you eat and what you’re choosing to eat and when. We spoke with Jennifer Sterling, Nutritionist and Certified Emotional Eating Coach, and she gave us some healthy pointers. Trust us, some of this info can be life saving.

Bevel Code: Typically, when someone says, “emotional eating,” we wrongfully picture a girl on a couch eating ice cream with running mascara. Men are rarely thought of. Why is that?

Jennifer Sterling: Yeah, I think it’s a fair assessment. I think that idea comes from this societal image of men, that they’re not supposed to show their emotions, so how could they be emotionally eating if they’re not emotional creatures? In my practice, I’ve seen just as many men who eat their feelings as I do women.

Stressed Man.

BC: How does it manifest itself in men?

JS: For men, when they get stressed, they eat. So most of the men who have inquired about it come to me and say, “I have a really stressful job and I just need something to take the edge off at the end of the day.” For some, that’s video games, for others it can mean drinking. It can also mean loading up on carbs and sugar, because naturally the body starts to crave those things when we experience stress— they’re almost immediate antidepressants, and boosts of energy. For a lot of people, if you eat a lot of carbs in a short time frame, your blood sugar  spikes, and eventually it comes down. The body looks for those things to distract it from what’s really going on. If you’re not in a place where you can actually deal with—or you’re not interested in dealing with—the stress, depression or whatever else it is you’re toughing out, then food is one of the most acceptable things for us to get ahold of.

BC: It’s crazy because the way certain food is advertised speaks to emotional eating, like for example candy bar commercials. It’s the most acceptable vice to have.

JS: Yeah, you need food to live, so nobody for the most part is going to come up to you and say, “you really shouldn’t be having that.” Whereas most might stage an intervention if they feel like you’re drinking too much or doing drugs. Most people aren’t going to stage an intervention if you’re eating. People may comment if you’ve gained weight, but people aren’t going to come up to you and say, “you really shouldn’t eat right now.”

BC: Have you ever had a situation though either male or female where you basically said it’s not that you’re emotionally eating; you just have terrible eating habits?

JS: The thing with emotional eating is that we’re all naturally emotional eaters, so it’s hard to separate the emotion from food, because the moment we’re born, they’re connected. If you’re breastfed as a child, you’ll  look for milk when you’re upset, whether that’s physically or emotionally. Babies will be drawn to that to calm themselves down. As we get older, ideally we would create coping mechanisms that are more mature. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, or we get caught in these societal, familial patterns where we’re rewarded with food for good behavior.

So for me, emotional eating is where you’re actually numbing your feelings with food: people who have trauma in their past or somebody who’s just constantly stressed and doesn’t want to deal with the root cause of their stress. And so they eat—those kinds of situations are more red flags to me to say let’s deal with the emotional piece. If that’s not a component and somebody’s just eating McDonald’s everyday and not feeling good about it, then that’s when I would say we should start to shift your eating habits. If it’s not tied directly to an emotional situation, then it could very well be you need to change things, change your schedule, and change what kind of food you keep around, those kinds of things.

Man looking out the window
BC: When people think of emotional eating they think of unhealthy food, but can’t people be emotional eaters of healthy food, too? You read those articles that say if you’re really stressed, chew on celery or carrots. Anything hard that will alleviate the stress, but in a sense, isn’t that also emotional eating?

JS: That would still be emotional eating. It’s still avoiding the emotion, but most people, unless they are aware of their emotional eating, aren’t going to reach for healthy food. Naturally your body doesn’t crave celery if you’re stressed out, because it’s trying to restore balance. When you eat carbohydrates your body releases insulin, which triggers an amino acid in the brain called tryptophan. Together in that combination, they work to calm you down, whereas celery is not going to have that same effect.

BC: Tryptophan is also found in turkey, which is why everybody is so sleepy during Thanksgiving, is that right?

JS: Exactly!

BC: So how do you go about that, because when you read those same kinds of articles and they say you find yourself reaching for a cupcake when you’re stressed grab celery, it’s still a coping mechanism. How do you get them to break that bad emotional eating habit?

JS: People try and replace one behavior with another, and the only way to really deal with it is to deal with what’s causing the emotional eating in the first place. So let’s say I have a client who comes to me and says, “Every time I feel sad or depressed, I eat a pint of ice cream and I just can’t help myself. I eat the whole pint.” For me, instead of telling them to replace the pint with something else, let’s talk about why you’re depressed. What is the cause of that depression so that we can create coping mechanisms around that, and I can offer some sort of self-care exercise, or find activities to get them out of that state of depression.

A lot of people in the beginning—even after they do that sort of self-care exercise—they’re still going to want to reach for food because that’s what they know, that’s what’s familiar. But the idea is that over time, they create different coping mechanisms so they can reach for that food less, so they actually deal with the emotion. They create ways to soothe themselves that actually feel good, so that they don’t need to reach for food. When most people eat their feelings, they don’t feel good afterwards. They feel guilty; they feel like they fell off the wagon, they feel physically unwell. It’s finding ways to soothe themselves that actually make them feel good and aren’t a short-term instant gratification kind of thing.

BC: For men who may have a difficulty in accepting that kind of a problem in their lives, what do you say to them? Getting help is often a lot harder in certain situations for men especially, when you say something like emotional eating. What’s their step one?

JS: I think step one is when the moment comes up where you feel like you need food, you need something, you’re having a craving that you can’t quite explain. Just take a second, check in with yourself and see if you’re physically hungry, is it the physical hunger? Is my stomach rumbling? What’s going on physically? Or is there something emotional happening, and I’m not really physically hungry at all?

BC: These are things that people really never stop and think about before eating.

JS: Most of us don’t! We’re so busy in our day to day that we don’t check in with ourselves. We take everything that we’ve been told and that’s what we go with. If you’re hungry, then eat. Anything in excess can be harmful, even water in excess is problematic. But if in the moment you’re sitting there and you feel like a cheeseburger is going to bring you the most satisfaction, as long as there aren’t any other major health concerns, then it’s okay to have that cheeseburger in moderation. The body will always seek to balance itself out, and we have to check ourselves now and then, but it’s important to really check in and notice am I craving sugar because I haven’t eaten anything today and it’s 2 o’clock? That could be the reason you’re having sugar cravings. Is your body short on energy? So instead of having that moment saying I shouldn’t eat whatever is on your list of bad foods, figure out why the craving is happening in the first place.

BC: Beyond emotional eating, do you help people break their bad eating habits as well?

JS: In the beginning, it’s really about creating healthy coping mechanisms and healthy soothing techniques, and then from there we go into what does a healthy meal look like? What foods make you feel good? As opposed to creating a diet for somebody; it’s more for me about helping them find the food that makes them feel best and that is typically healthier foods that make us feel the most energized, the most like ourselves. Then we talk about creating healthy habits and things like that, so I do a bit of both.

BC: It feels like there’s also gender bias when it comes to healthy eating at times.

JS: I think a lot of it is rooted in what the woman is supposed to look like as opposed to what the man is supposed to look like. So when you think of a woman downing a pint of ice cream, what most people think of is “oh my goodness, she’s going to gain weight!” You’re going to put on pounds doing that. People don’t really think about men doing that as often. It’s not such a big deal if a man gains a few pounds, so that whole gist is kind of rooted in diet culture and our beauty standards and all that, so it is different. We have a lot of other things that we have to consider, whereas for them it’s not a big deal. I’ll eat a bag of chips, if I gain a couple pounds, I’ll work out. Men tend to lose weight a little easier than women for the most part, so they’re not concerned with the same things and they don’t have the same messaging around a lot of those things that women have.