How & Why Our Mood Can Affect Our Relationship with Food

Ever catch yourself thinking, “What do I feel like eating right now?,” when you’re trying to decide what to eat for your meal? This happens to me often and I hear others around me going through the same thought process. How is it that our emotions are linked to what we eat or rather also, what we don’t eat? Well, turns out there has been studies and research done on the very connection of our food and moods, specifically depression and anxiety.

When struggling with depression or anxiety, your eating habits can often suffer and struggle as well. Some can overeat and gain significant weight, turning to food to lift their mood. Others can lose their appetite and find that they’re just simply not interested or too exhausted to eat at all. Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist, says “whether you’re overeating or not eating enough, you may be using food to feel better or to cope with difficult feelings”. Most people believe that emotional eating is due to a lack of self-control, but it isn’t as simple as whether or not we can be disciplined.

What are some ways that depression and our emotions can affect our eating?

  1. For comfort: emotionally & chemically in our brains. Commonly, individuals who have depression can often use or see food as a way to improve or avoid negative or uncomfortable feelings like sadness, shame, and self-loathing. Many people begin to crave carbs or soothing comfort foods, (which can also be different culturally), such as ice cream or cake, or the foods that bring soothing memories to you, when they are depressed. Chemically, one reason for this is that foods high in carbs and sugar increase levels of serotonin – a brain chemical that elevates mood. Eating foods high in sugar and fat may make you feel calmer and cared for but this diet can also lead to heart disease, diabetes and other significant health issues. It can also be addictive in that eating these foods can trigger release of dopamine, the feel-good transmitter in the brain. Thus, also creating a cycle and a trap for your brain.
  2. Loss of Appetite: instead of overeating, the opposite occurs with a non-existent relationship with food. You may feel like you don’t have motivation or energy to eat while experiencing depression. Stress can also play a role in reducing your appetite, food just isn’t as appealing when you’re anxious, worried or feel hopeless. But not eating enough can not only be tricky for your physical health, but it can also make you more irritable and sensitive which can worsen the depression as a cycle as well.
  3. For distraction. With the immediate pleasures we can get from food, it can be used as a distraction or a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes after the end of a long and hectic day, you may immediately (almost unconsciously) reach out for your comfort foods with a thought of “I would have nothing to look forward to”, which can be especially effective in temporarily providing pleasure.

What Can You Do?

  1. Notice your automatic thoughts and emotions you are feeling when eating and practice being mindful of what you are eating. I believe that change can begin with motivation and also self-awareness. You can try to remain mindful of what and when you are eating. I know it can be tedious to focus completely on your eating, especially at first! Start slowly and avoid self-judgmental as you try out a new way of being!
  2. Develop and find other ways to reward and soothe yourself besides food. Ask yourself:  Will these other ways be as effective at soothing you as food? Probably not. But the things you do come up with can be additional tools for you to help cope with the difficult emotions you are experiencing.
  3. Seek out friends and support! If not, talking to a professional is also helpful in practicing accepting and tolerating difficult feelings and spaces, and also understanding the relationship you have with food and eating. A professional will be able to also in drafting up a nutrition plan and assess your physical health as well.

If this is one of your struggles, know that you are not alone. Please do not hesitate to call or reach out to us!

Written by therapist Tina Choi

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