The Mind-Body Connection to Healthy Weight
Stressed? Overwhelmed? Tired? The way you feel could be affecting your waistline.
When most women think about managing their weight, they think in terms of calories consumed in relation to calories burned. While that’s one of the most important equations when it comes to losing or maintaining weight, it isn’t the only factor to consider—emotion can often play a role.
“Under particular circumstances, for some individuals, there is a correlation between their emotions and overeating,” says Dr. Monica Bishop of the Washington University School of Medicine. “Some people tend to use food as a coping mechanism and to alter emotions.”
Food’s basic purpose is to fuel and nourish the body so that it can function. However, for most people, food and the joy of eating serves other purposes beyond nutritional necessity for survival. Early in life, we associate food with comfort or reward (a good report card in elementary school rewarded with a “great job!” and a celebratory trip to Ted Drewes sound familiar?). Food—the really tasty stuff that might not be so good for us—is often the center of situations where we feel happy, comforted, nurtured and socially connected.
In the face of stress, loneliness, anger, guilt and even depression, it can make a lot of sense to reach for those foods we remember as having a huge feel-good payoff to suppress or even numb the unwanted emotion, says Dr. Bishop. Biologically, Dr. Bishop explains, when we’re stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol, a hormone that can make our bodies create and retain stubborn fat, especially across the midsection. This weight gain can cause individuals to feel even more stressed, creating a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Conversely, Dr. Bishop says while some people overeat to mitigate emotions, others my lose their appetite and avoid food when stressed or depressed. “These individuals may reason that by feeling hunger, they’re not feeling the emotion that originally caused them stress or sadness,” she says.
Finding a Healthy Balance
It can be difficult to separate emotion from eating, but in order to keep a healthy weight and lifestyle, it’s important to differentiate between actual physiological hunger and numbing or heightening an emotion with food. “The numberone way to help people can become more aware of their behavior is logging meals in a food journal and to be honest with themselves when they do it,” says Dr. Bishop. Mark as many details as possible, including what you consumed, the time of day and how you felt before and after you ate; after a few weeks, you should be able to see a pattern (i.e., “I see that I typically overeat on Sunday nights because I feel stressed about the busy work week ahead.”), and see where you can adjust to make healthier changes.
Another way to combat the pitfalls of emotional eating, Dr. Bishop says, is to go easier on ourselves. “When people are trying to eat healthfully and they have slipup —maybe they have a bag of chips—they tend to beat themselves up over it, and might feel like the entire day is a failure,” she says. “The key for individuals who are susceptible to emotional eating should be a focus on overall lifestyle changes rather trying to achieve a certain size or weight.”