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The Connection Between Food, Mood and Self-Image

Have you ever caught yourself eating not because your stomach is empty but because you want to feed your emotions? The drive behind emotional eating is not hunger. “Physical hunger occurs gradually, emotional hunger comes on suddenly”, says Christine Smith of North Caroline University.

Many people are driven to eat due to emotional reasons. They may be lonely, bored, sad or depressed so they go in search of food in order to make themselves feel better. But, what happens if the very foods that you eat to bring you comfort are the same ones that actually make you feel worse than you felt before you started eating them?

What studies reveal about emotions and food

That’s what a recent study conducted by Penn State University found. They had a group of 131 college aged women known to have issues with their eating and self-esteem keep track of their moods and eating activities at various points throughout the day.

What they found is that when the women felt good and had positive emotions, eating unhealthy food had relatively little effect on their attitudes. However, if they were feeling down prior to eating the junk food they craved then the negative emotions were magnified simply by consuming the high fat and high calorie foods they desired.

This study is heads above other studies in that it followed the participants in their regular daily activities, not in an experimental lab environment. Therefore, the information it reveals may have greater significance when finding the connection between emotion, thoughts and food; thus also finding better ways to resolve the issues that emotional eating often creates.

Another study conducted by the University of North Carolina found similar correlations between emotion and food. Like the Penn State study, they too followed college students over the course of eleven weeks and noted that those who experienced high levels of anxiety had higher incidences of binge eating. And, the amount of binge eating increased as the levels of anxiety increased.

So, even though our bodies are designed to require food for physical survival, people are using food for emotional survival too. It’s like eating has become the answer to every question and the solution to every problem.

The problem becomes more complex

Let’s add to the mix the issue of self-worth. Are the problems with emotional eating the same for people who have high self-esteem, or do those who think less of themselves have more issues with turning to food for relief? Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case. Why?

One suggestion is that people with a lower self-image tend to be more sensitive to the feelings that may initially cause people to overeat. They are constantly looking at others for reassurance so they have a greater likelihood of being more stressed due to the pressure and more “let downs” when they don’t get the results they’re seeking.

It would only stand to reason then that these types of individuals would seek comfort from food because they don’t feel like they’re getting it from the people in their lives. Food doesn’t judge them, think they’re stupid or cause them pain. It quiets their fears, calms their nerves and eases their anxiety.

The problem is, though, that this becomes a vicious cycle that can be difficult to get out of. If a person has low self-esteem, they experience more negative feelings and this leads them to engage in emotional eating. Then, as we’re finding in studies like the ones by Penn State and the University of North Carolina, when these people eat they feel worse. This likely worsens their self-esteem issues and the process starts all over again.

Where depression fits in

Just as a person’s level of self-esteem greatly impacts the rate at which they engage in emotional eating, so too does their level of satisfaction and happiness with life overall. In other words, if an individual feels depressed, they’re probably going to eat more than someone that does not.

In research conducted by the University of Helsinki and the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland in 2016, they studied a group of Finnish men and women to find a link between how depressed the participants felt and how much emotional eating they practiced. They used questionnaires and scales to help them reach some very important conclusions.

What they found was that those who felt depressed made unhealthier food choices. In other words, they ate fewer good-for-you foods such as fruits and vegetables. They also found that emotional eating is the link between depression and weight gain. Tie this result in with the results we’ve just learned from Penn State and University of North Carolina and one could argue that depressive individuals may actually lengthen or worsen their depression because of the type  of diet that their feelings actually lead them towards.

Looking for a solution

At some point, the cycle has to be broken for changes to occur. The question is, where do you break it? Is raising your self-esteem enough to stop emotional eating or should you focus on getting rid of the negative thoughts and depression that result from a poor self-image first? Maybe it would be better to concentrate on changing eating behaviors and that will automatically modify a person’s beliefs about themselves and make them feel more positive, thus stopping the cycle?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question. And, because each person responds to different prompts, the answer isn’t likely to be the same for everyone who has an issue with emotional eating—whether it be out of low self-esteem, negative feelings or possibly depression.

Perhaps with more research findings coming to the surface daily it will become clearer where to begin. Until then, it may be beneficial to address all of the aspects we can in the hope that one positive benefit will impact the others.

We can try to help people raise their self-esteem through programs that make them feel worthy and whole. Two such programs, with proven clinical record of helping people improve their relationship with food and develop a positive image are Weight Watchers (more here) and Nutrisystem (more here). We can also focus on teaching individuals who are more sensitive or susceptible to negative feelings how to deal with them in ways that actually resolve them versus just trying to cover them up with food.

At the same time, if healthy food is more readily available and people learn to make better choices, it may increase their self-image because they’ve made some very good decisions about their health and wellness. Not to mention that the vitamins and minerals in the nutritious foods will make them feel better and may resolve some underlying nutritional deficiencies that may be part of the problem.

One thing is for sure; none of it can hurt. When a person has a positive self-image, good internal feelings and healthy food they have the best chance at living a life where emotions are just feelings and food has nothing to do with them.