Food is a common source of comfort for coping with hardships and stress. In the wake of a breakup, the frozen dairy aisle is frequented. A person coping with the loss of a loved one is gifted with a fully stocked fridge. It’s no secret we turn to food in times of distress. In moderation, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, chronic overeating and/or continuously using food as a coping mechanism might be a symptom of something deeper.
Food addiction is a psychological (and often subconscious) reliance on food—usually to improve mood or deal with stress. Such an addiction is not unlike a substance addiction, in terms of neural activity. Both food consumption and drug use involve the release of dopamine in the brain. The amount of dopamine released depends on how rewarding each action is to the individual. Emotional distress triggers cortisol—or the “stress chemical”—in the brain, which causes a sharp increase in insulin, lowering your blood sugar and increasing cravings of sugary and/or fatty foods. Therefore, these are the types of food we reach for in times of stress. Although these foods are not too detrimental in moderation, and may even seem helpful at times when they soothe our emotions, they can cause harm to both our mental and physical health.
As well, studies suggest that food addiction can develop in the wake of trauma—as the dopamine trigger can improve mood, chronic overeating—or emotional eating—can manifest as food addiction. This is especially dangerous for people who are prone to addiction or already suffer from one, because food can seem like such a natural, healthy coping mechanism. As well, studies have found a potential link between food addiction and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While food may seem on the lesser scale in comparison to other addictions, it’s just one more substance with which someone can form an unhealthy dependence. And that makes it potentially dangerous.
However, there are many steps to take to deal with chronic overeating.
- Starting a journal, which doesn’t have to revolve solely around food intake—although documenting foods eaten can help reduce negative patterns and establish healthy ones.
- Separating hunger from emotional distress. When are you actually hungry, vs. when could you benefit from a different, healthier coping mechanism.
- Reach out. It’s always important to have a support system. It’s how we endure hardships. Seeking a friend, family member, or any other person with who you share a close bond, to confide in about your struggles may seem daunting—but they will help you get through it with your best interest in mind.
- Staying busy. Furthering other interests and/or developing additional hobbies are great to keep your mind active and distracted. These, too, can help you feel more in tune with yourself, and build self-confidence.
- Consider seeking help. Food addiction is serious, and could very well be too difficult to tackle by yourself. Therapy is always an option, as is consulting with a nutritionist.