I admit it, I’m a dark chocolate addict.
After a long day, I love to indulge my taste buds with a few of Lindt’s dark squares.
But when experts said dark chocolate is healthy, I don’t think they meant to eat the whole bar!
Sadly, I’m not alone in struggling with overpowering cravings for foods that give me comfort amidst the daily grind.
According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of US adults admit to bingeing on unhealthy foods to relieve stress.(1)
Of those, over half say the joy of biting into a juicy burger or sweet release of a slice of cake leaves them feeling ashamed afterwards. While 1 in 3 say filling up on unhealthy foods leaves them feeling sluggish and drained.
So cravings don’t just ruin clean eating attempts and stretch people’s waistlines. They harm people’s self confidence too.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is a team of scientists from Louisiana State University (LSU) has found cravings for unhealthy foods can be reduced or even stopped altogether.(2) Even better, the method they discovered doesn’t involve willpower, overpriced supplements, or diet pills.
As John Apolzan, director of Pennington Biomedical Clinical Nutrition, who led the research, says cravings are “a conditioned response that you can unlearn.“
Changing Habits is Key To Reduce Emotional Eating
After examining 28 peer-reviewed studies, the team from LSU concluded that cravings for unhealthy foods often don’t occur due to hunger. Instead, cravings occur due to deeply entrenched behavioral triggers.
Surprisingly, these are habits and behaviors many people think are healthy yet studies now show may make cravings worse.
The goods news is the team at LSU also discovered that changing these behaviors is all it can take to reduce cravings for junk food and make it easier to stick to clean eating habits.
As Candice Myers, PhD, who was also involved in the research, said “Cravings influences what people eat and their body weight, but there are some components of our behavior and diet that we do have control over.”
So what are these craving inducing behaviors and how can you reduce emotional eating habits? Read on to find out:
1. Restricting Favorite Foods
Whether it’s eliminating sugar, carbs, or lectins, restrictive diets are promoted as a magic bullet for slimming down.
Sure, going cold turkey on pasta, soda, and white bread can work wonders for your waistline for a while.
But living without the comfort of favorite food can quickly make people feel deprived. Then all it takes is a stressful day at work to trigger an eating binge of epic proportions.
So what’s the solution to reduce emotional eating habits?
Simple: Reduce the intake of unhealthy foods GRADUALLY.
Making dietary changes gradually gives the taste buds and brain time to adjust. The result is clean eating feels less like punishment and easier to sustain for the long haul.
“Bingeing is triggered by deprivation, which leads to a vicious cycle,” says best selling health author and popular health blogger Jessica Sepel. “Instead of depriving your body of food, it’s time to start nourishing yourself and healing your relationship with nutrition.” (15)
2. Calorie Counting
Whether it’s keto, paleo, or the carnivore diet, most diets involve calorie counting of some sort.
While cutting calories can result in rapid weight loss, it typically only works for a short while. Because it doesn’t take long before the body’s hormones can trigger rebound weight with a vengeance.
The reason this happens is because when calories are cut too fast the body sees this as a threat and goes into survival mode. It then releases hormones to force the body to take in more calories.(3)
Chief among the hormones released is the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin.(4)
Whereas the hormone leptin decreases appetite, ghrelin INCREASES it. And the fewer calories people eat the more ghrelin the body produces. The result is people feel hungrier the less they try to eat.
In fact, research by Fitchburg State University found that ghrelin levels nearly double within six months of going on a calorie restrictive diet.(5)
So how can you reduce calorie intake without triggering the hunger hormone?
As before, the key is to reduce emotional eating is to lower calorie intake gradual. This makes the transition smoother and reduces the risk of putting the body into survival mode.
3. Exercising Too Much
For decades we’ve been told that sweating buckets on the treadmill, bootcamp workouts, and pushing our bodies to the max is great for our bodies and minds.
Sure, exercise is a key component of a healthy life. But some experts say doing it too much can make cravings WORSE.
This includes endurance trainer Matt Fitzgerald, author of Diet Cults and Racing Weight. He says cravings can increase after exercise due to the “reward psychology at play.”(6)
Fitzgerald says it’s a common problem for “beginners who aren’t intrinsically motivated to exercise; they simply don’t love it.”
In other words, if a workout is too gruelling people then want to reward themselves. And for many people this means bingeing on the sugary foods that made them overweight in the first place.
So, yet again, the key to reduce emotional eating is to adopt a new exercise regimen is to do it gradually. Start with exercise that feels manageable then build the intensity over time.
4. Too Much Cortisol
Whether it’s hitting a deadline at work or the kids causing havoc at home, stress is part of daily life. It’s also one of the most common causes of emotional eating.
When we feel stressed it causes the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol to rocket.
Cortisol then sends blood and nutrients rushing to the brain and muscles. It also increases the body’s desire to take on board fuel. And the fuel our bodies crave the most is GLUCOSE.
Glucose is metabolised in the body from carbs and sugars. Which is why people crave soda and carb loaded pizza when stressed.(7) It’s the body telling them to take on board fuel.
“When we’re stressed, our bodies are flooded in cortisol,” said author and clinical psychologist Susan Albers. “That makes us crave sugary, fatty, salty foods.”(11)
So how can the chain reaction of stress leading to cravings for junk food be avoided?
The key to reduce emotional eating due to stress is to find healthy ways of relieving stress, rather than raiding the fridge.
5. Lack of Fulfilment
People often struggle to reduce emotional eating due to boredom or due to a void in their lives.
As Sarah Allen, a psychologist specializing in mood and eating disorders, notes, “eating gives us something to do. It fills our time, gives us a way to procrastinate.”(11)
The reason we eat when bored is because it releases the ‘reward hormone’ dopamine in the brain.
Karen R. Koenig, a licensed clinical social worker and eating psychology expert, says that due to the release of dopamine “the meaning of eating is, ‘I’m going to be happy. I’m not going to be in emotional discomfort. I’ll have this wonderful experience.”(11)
Sadly, the foods that trigger the biggest dopamine dump are those loaded with SUGAR.(11)
So if sugary foods make us feel so great due to dopamine, how can we stop eating them?
The solution is to pursue new interests and hobbies that provide a sense of fulfilment and reward.
A good place to start is to write a bucket list of things to try. Pursuing those things can then fill the void otherwise filled with food.
6. Too Much Processed ‘Frankenfoods‘
A key reason why 2 in 3 Americans are now classed overweight or obese is because of the low nutrition in processed ‘frankenfoods’.(12)
The human body craves nutrients. And it won’t stop feeling hungry until it gets enough.
This is why people can eat pasta, potato chips, and cookies until the cows come home without feeling full. It’s because these foods are criminally low in nutrition.(13)
Luckily, the solution is simple: Eat nutrient dense foods instead.
Nutrient dense foods include eggs, avocado, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and oily fish.(14)
Eating these foods helps fill up the body quicker and keep it feeling full for longer, reducing the risk of snacking mid-afternoon.
Escaping Emotional Eating Offers a Path to Physical Health, Fulfilment and a Happier Mind
As these six behaviors demonstrate, there’s no magic bullet or wonder pill that can reduce emotional eating and cravings for good.
Instead, it involves changing our relationship with food...
Finding other ways of relieving stress than biting into a juicy burger…
Pursuing fulfilling activities that release feelings of joy…
and to gradually adopt clean eating and exercise habits in harmony with the body’s hormones.
Making these changes involves self reflection, personal growth, and persistence. It also requires skills in mindfulness, body confidence, positive thinking, and goal setting.
The good news is that these skills aren’t just beneficial for reducing emotional eating habits. They can transform life in many other areas too.
For anyone interested in developing these skills so they can reduce emotional eating habits and gain inner peace, physical health, and a happier mindset, we’ve developed a 7 step program that can help.
Disclaimer – Statements made in this article have not been approved or verified by the FDA. This information is not intended to be a substitute or replacement for any medical treatment. Please seek the advice of a healthcare professional for your specific health concerns. Individual results may vary.