Ever noticed how your mood directs your food? When you feel a certain way, you reach for foods you wouldn’t normally eat. If you’re sad, or feeling lonely, do you wolf down that slab of chocolate? Or perhaps the oily chips really do seem to be crooning your name, and it’s not just Bridget Jones who eats tubs of ice cream after a breakup.
Emotional eating is as mainstream as the iPhone. Sometimes we seem to be feeding our feelings rather than our bodies. Many human behaviours are driven by unconscious emotions. And the food we eat is an important example of this.
Psychological and physiological factors affect what we choose to put into our bodies and dictate the relationship we have between food and emotions. We need fuel in the form of food to survive, but there are absolutely some foods that are only eaten in very specific circumstances.
Let’s take coffee–how many people can’t function unless they’ve had their shot of caffeine first thing in the morning? Or what about alcohol? Do you need alcohol to loosen up, relax, feel more confident? While not strictly foods, you get the picture.
The link between food and mood has been established by hundreds of scientific studies. Many showing that anxiety, or depression, lethargy, irritability and cravings can, and do, result from a poor or imbalanced diet.
Our relationship with food is complicated at best, but it is one that is key to understanding both our emotions and mental states. It’s quite enlightening to observe your eating habits and desires or to become more mindful and stop before you eat something; questioning–why do I want this? What will it give me? What need do I feel it will fulfill for me?
One study shows the significant role of emotions in food consumption. The results showed participants felt contented after eating a high fat, high energy food, whereas with a low carbohydrate meal, participants felt unfulfilled.
Scientific studies have demonstrated the link between the desire for a specific food and the need for certain micronutrients. These micronutrients are used by the body to regulate our emotions, mood or physical conditions. One of the most popular foods people crave is chocolate. Chocolate contains the chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical that our brain creates when we are feeling the emotion of romantic love.
What do Your Food Cravings Mean?
We crave specific foods due to amino acids, neurochemical catalysts, or vasoconstrictor catalysts. These will energise your body or soothe your brain chemicals. If we take the example of someone experiencing fatigue or burnout, they may crave the stimulating effect of sharp cheese or red meat, or sugar and chocolate to give an instant energy hit. When people are depressed, fearful, or feeling lonely, they may start craving the soothing effect of fatty foods, like ice cream.
Psychotherapist and spiritual teacher, Doreen Virtue, the author of Constant Cravings, says cravings for food are a sign that the body and the emotions are looking for peace or homeostasis. They can stem from emotional or physical imbalances.
Intuitively, the body knows that certain foods will alter the brain chemicals or blood pressure in order to regulate energy or mood.
Doreen Virtue studied eating disorders and the psychological issues triggering food cravings and developed a list of foods and their related emotions. She says emotional issues related to food cravings fall into definite categories.
Four emotions form the core of emotional overeating: fear, anger, tension, and shame (FATS). Fear is the root emotion in the FATS feelings. Anger, tension, and shame are all extensions of fear. We feel angry because we fear losing love in the form of something or someone valuable to us; we feel tension because we are afraid of trusting or because we’ve walked away from our Divine path; we feel shame because we fear we are inadequate.
If your emotional issues remain unaddressed, your food craving will remain constant. If your emotional issues change, so will your food cravings. There can be a physical basis for food cravings. If you are missing out on minerals or vitamins, or have an imbalance in your diet, you will crave certain foods. Once you’ve fixed the physical aspects of your food cravings, what is left are the emotional causes.
If your cravings seem more geared toward high fat foods, you’re most likely feeling some insecurity that you’re trying to fill with fat. Fat stays in the stomach long after other forms of food have been digested and emptied. So, fat cravings often occur in people who feel that their life lacks meaning, who feel empty, or who feel financially or emotionally insecure. – Dr Doreen Virtue
The most direct route to reducing cravings is to heal the situation that’s triggering them. Even taking a baby step toward the resolution of a problem at work, in your love life, or in your lifestyle can reduce food cravings. – Dr Doreen Virtue
While our moods impact our diet, conversely our diet impacts our emotions and state of mind. Ultimately, it can be a vicious circle.
An Eastern Viewpoint of Food and Mood
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and other Eastern philosophies of health, the emotions are considered the major internal causes of disease. TCM denotes five couples of organs. We have kidney and bladder, liver and gall bladder, heart and small intestine, the spleen and stomach, and finally the lungs and large intestine. Every organ has a sensorial and emotional component. Suwen (The Book of Plain Questions), one of the theoretical foundational books of Traditional Chinese Medicine, says: “The five yin-organs of the human body produce five kinds of essential qi, which bring forth joy, anger, grief, worry, and fear.” TCM also believes that certain organs are related to emotional activities, i.e. the heart is related to joy, the liver to anger, the spleen to pensiveness, the lungs to anxiety and the kidneys to fear.
We can directly relate food cravings to TCM wisdom, for example, the taste of salt stimulates kidney function, which is tied to the body’s energy reserves. The taste of sweet boosts stomach function, and is usually a sign that your digestive system is in need of some loving care. It could also mean you need to nourish yourself better and up your self-care.
Eating too much meat, cheese and eggs can cause excess yang in the organs and the body, which can cause our organs to become contracted. Rick Vermuyten, natural health practitioner and clinical chemist, says a lack of balance in the lungs and large intestine, and the contraction of overeating meat products, can lead to reduced empathy and sensitivity.
He believes “you cannot feel anymore” once organs, such as the lungs and large intestine, become too tight, but on the other side he says if the organs become too weak, you may be overly sensitive and over-react. Mr Vermuyten explains that rice is the answer to balancing the organs as ‘rice’ and ‘mouth’ both mean ‘peace’, according to the Orient.
How to Stop Cravings
Food cravings are most often an emotional hunger. It’s your body’s way of communicating a basic need that’s not being met. Perhaps it’s a need for comfort, touch, love, support, validation, or connection. By listening to yourself and uncovering what you are needing and then filling these emotions yourself, or reaching out to a friend for support, you can start to nourish yourself emotionally and you’ll soon find your food cravings will drop off.
Our body is naturally wired for optimum health and balance. We become thirsty when we are dehydrated, we shiver when we are cold, yawn when tired. These are the body’s messages for us to take action to meet our needs. In the same way as when we lose our peace of mind; our body directs us with an action to correct it. It could deliver a food craving for chocolate, which is really a way of saying you need to correct your emotional state of mind, which is feeling lonely, anxious or insecure.
If we can learn the difference between emotional and physical hunger, we can easily meet our emotional needs and stave off cravings. Some differences between these two types of hunger are:
- Emotional hunger is based in the mind, is sudden and specific, wanting one food; while,
- Physical hunger comes from the stomach, is slower and is open to a variety of foods.
Ultimately, we need to face our emotions instead of covering them up with food. While this may seem scary or challenging, it is the pathway to radiant health and vitality, along with balance and happiness. And the feedback loop when our body is well nourished and healthy is that our emotions become calmer, and the mind happier and more balanced, so it’s a journey well worth taking.