When people talk about the emotional causes of weight gain, they usually center on stress. And while that’s a big one, there are actually six major emotions that can trigger emotional eating and cause you to gain weight.
The big surprise is that these emotions don’t have to be negative! Sometimes, positive emotions like happiness can get the best of your eating habits.
But first, let’s start off with a fun food fact: the very first food that was cooked in a microwave (for experimental purposes) was popcorn. Great choice, right? Emotional eaters love popcorn!
You may associate popcorn with happiness like fun times at the movies or the county fair… but you may also be reaching for this quick and easy snack when you’re feeling one of these six emotions that cause weight gain.
Which Of These Emotions Are Tripping You Up?
Anxiety is a magnet for weight gain. It’s so easy to reach for food when we’re feeling jammed up with fear. Two out of three people with eating disorders suffer from anxiety. Anxiety leads to a fight-or-flight response and this instant, unconscious response can lead to weight gain. Why? We can neither run from our thoughts, nor fight them. So we stuff them down with food.
If you’re serious about losing weight, get a handle on your anxiety!
Anxiety can strike at any time, and it’s incredibly difficult to control. One of my favorite ways to get control of those runaway “what if?” thoughts is to meditate. I know, I know… I see that eye roll! I get it. We’re all sick of hearing it.
People literally tell me, “I’m too anxious to meditate!” But that’s the frickin’ point of meditation, to bring ourselves down instead of medicating (or eating) ourselves down! Yes, meditation can be challenging and yes, it is a discipline, but boy does it pay off!
Tip: you can’t meditate wrong. If your mind slows down even a little, you’re making progress. Don’t judge. Just ‘be’.
#2: A Happy Marriage
It turns out that being happily married may be great for your heart, but not so much for your body. Over 600 research studies found that being happily married was a cause of weight gain. Of course there is a lot going on here…
First, there’s commitment. Emotional eaters (or addicts of any kind) don’t want to be committed; and once we commit, there’s an unconscious undertone of stress to that. Now we’re stuck; can’t run away; and so we eat.
Then, there’s change. Learning to share your space and even finances with someone, adapting to their routines and their eating habits… it’s all different, and that again can cause stress eating. Most of us have a fantasy in our minds that once we’re married life will be perfect but the reality never lives up to that. There are always compromises and disappointments. Marriage is not always easy, even if you’re a perfect fit for each other!
Tip: be mindful of your emotions and address what’s bugging you; co-commit to healthy living (it’s easier together); and talk things out instead of burying them with food.
This is a big one… and you can even be lonely in a marriage! Emotional eaters tend to be more sensitive to loneliness than the average person. We often feel completely estranged and isolated even in large groups. We think, “I don’t know these people, they don’t know me, if they did they probably wouldn’t like me…” This leads to a very dark sense of being alone, and the self-pity of feeling you don’t matter.
We often turn to comfort foods when we feel socially isolated on a weekend night… and of course when we do go out, hanging out at the buffet table is easier than walking up to someone and connecting.
A study by Hormones and Behavior Journal found that loneliness actually changes people’s hormones triggered. Loneliness triggers an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant – the lonelier participants felt, the more they felt hungry!
Tip: expand your social circle. Introverts… relax. Just one ‘partner in crime’ will make a tremendous difference. Find a buddy through hobbies or shared interests and you’ll help each other navigate life!
Deprivation can trigger overeating. This one’s a little more complex. The International Journal of Eating Disorders found that:
Physical deprivation leads to insatiable cravings for forbidden foods. In the brain, this forbidden food suddenly becomes an obsession-worthy reward.
Perceived deprivation (thinking you “should” avoiding certain foods or eating less) can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, regret… and then, emotional eaters will go for it, just to punish themselves.
Tip: Stop feeling deprived. Nobody is taking anything away from you. Reframe your thoughts. “I can have anything I want, but in order to feel good about myself and to feel energized and clean and vibrant, I’m making better choices!”
Physiologically, stress triggers fat storage by increasing production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The stress response in athletics is great because you need the burst of energy – but if you’re sedentary and can’t burn off that energy… and in the case of emotional danger, there’s no running away. The high stress hormone levels (particularly cortisol) lead to weight gain, especially around the belly.
Tip: Move your body every day to burn off the stress hormones and prevent their build-up. A brisk walk with the dog, a spin class, dancing, yoga… it matters less ‘what’ you do than ‘that’ you do. And of course, meditate, to lower your tendency to have automatic stress responses to whatever life throws at you. Journaling, talking to a friend, hanging out with animals, listening to music, and laughter are great stress relievers!
Boredom can be the gateway emotion for emotional eating. So many people say, “I eat when I’m bored” and they don’t see that as emotional eating. The thing is, boredom is really an escape. The restlessness you feel from doing nothing may come from overwhelm (“I can’t handle this, so I’ll avoid it”) or being faced with your own thoughts. Of course, sometimes you’re stuck in a situation where you have forced idle time (like waiting for a flight) and you may feel anxious about all those things you could and should be doing. When you’re bored, you also want to be entertained and so you go for entertaining foods.
I don’t believe in running from your feelings because at some point you have to face them. Having a purpose – some cool goals, passions and ambitions – will keep your mind and hands busy and make you feel good about yourself. What drives you? What can you do to pursue those passions? Even 15 minutes a day doing what you love will be transformative!
Tip: I don’t subscribe to the “always keep busy” mentality. Meditation is a case in point. “Sitting and doing nothing” can be an amazing thing! Close your eyes and focus on breathing in and out. In just a few minutes, you will feel incredibly refreshed!
These are the six most common weight gain traps for emotional eaters. I encourage you to be mindful of your motivations for heading to the kitchen. Take some positive action to change your state of mind. Meditate, move your body, and do whatever makes your heart sing. You will find lots of inspiration and support in the Heal Your Hunger facebook group The Secret Sauce to End Emotional Eating.