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Food and Feelings

Understand the relationship

Food is necessary for physical survival. Food is also connected to feelings. Food affects chemicals in the brain. Brain chemicals control many of the body's functions, including mood, appetite, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, one chemical that affects mood is serotonin. The body makes serotonin from foods such as dairy, beef, poultry, nuts, beans, pasta, and breads.

Another connection between food and feelings comes from childhood. Sweets such as cake and candy may be linked in our minds to happy times such as birthday parties. Many of us still cherish a favorite food Mom would make to help us feel better when we were sick. Other foods may produce bad feelings, for example vegetables we did not like but had to eat before being excused from the table.

For some people, eating is a way to deal with emotions such as stress, anger, anxiety, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. These feelings may be caused by major life events or by everyday hassles. Eating comfort foods may be a way to take our minds off our troubles, or a way to try and get the energy to deal with things. When people feel short of time and energy, they often eat junk food or fast food because it's quick and easy. Emotional eaters may not necessarily overeat, but rather eat unhealthy foods.

Managing food and mood

Food should be enjoyable while it nourishes our bodies. There are several steps you can take to make sure that you are not trying to use food to deal with feelings:

  • If you think that you are eating to deal with emotions, try to understand where it comes from. Do you crave a certain food (such as sweets or starch) that you remember from childhood? Are you feeling too stressed to worry about having a healthy meal? Learn what makes you want to eat. For several days, write down when you eat, how you are feeling, how hungry you are, what you eat, and how much you eat. This helps you see patterns and tells you which triggers to avoid.
  • Learn to recognize true hunger. If you ate just a few hours ago and don't have a rumbling stomach, you are probably not really hungry. Emotional hunger tends to come on suddenly and can only be satisfied by eating a certain food. You may keep eating even when full, and then feel guilty afterwards. Is your hunger physical or emotional?
  • Find other ways to make yourself feel better. Instead of eating a candy bar, take a walk, watch a movie, or call a friend. Talking to someone about what is stressing you is more helpful than feeling guilty about overeating.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise can be a good way to relieve stress. Sports or group activities can help prevent boredom and loneliness. Walking can be soothing when you feel anxious or sad. Choose exercise that you enjoy.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Comfort foods such as starchy, sweet, salty, and fatty foods can cause health problems such as weight gain and increased risk for heart disease. When you fill up on the right kinds of food, you are more likely to feel fuller, and stay full longer. Eat more whole grains, vegetables and fruits, as well as low-fat dairy products and lean meats. Try to eat at regular times.
  • Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie food, such as fresh fruit, pretzels, or unbuttered popcorn. Don't keep unhealthy foods around. But don't completely deny yourself. Try eating sugar free chocolate pudding or low-fat ice cream. Or allow yourself a small serving of the dessert that you want. No food is totally bad as long as you don't eat too much of it.
  • If you give in to emotional eating, forgive yourself and try to learn from it. Plan how to prevent it in the future.

For more information about healthy eating, contact your local chapter of the American Dietetic Association. You may call their national headquarters at 800-877-1600, or visit their Web site at http://www.eatright.org.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-09-01
Last reviewed: 2010-08-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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