Overeating in response to emotional challenges is still a challenge many of us face, despite the existence of diet plans too numerous to remember, and interventions ranging from psychotherapy to exposure to cold showers. Control over food intake works until life gets out of control.
When we are stressed, our efforts to limit food choices to healthy, portion-controlled food at specific times of day is overwhelmed by emotional turmoil. At such times, salads and lean protein are discarded in favor of sweet or salty foods, often high in carbs and fat. When binge eating, quantities are rarely measured – and the eating may continue until there is nothing left to be eaten.
Stress Is A Trigger For Binge Eating
A friend whose weight has been an issue since she was in elementary school told me she is able to easily stick to a diet until one of her now adult children has a problem. “When their lives go out of control, my eating does the same.”
Many studies affirm what any failed dieter knows well: stress is a trigger for the consumption and overconsumption of calorie-dense, usually nutrient-weak foods. When we are stressed, we lose control of our ability to say “no” to unhealthy choices and it’s harder to stop when we feel full.
Women, Men & Overeating: What’s The Difference?
Although stress impacts everyone, women are more likely than men to participate in stress eating. In her review of gender and eating behaviors, Beydoun cites several articles showing a relationship between stress and or/ depression and the consumption of energy-rich snacks among women, but not men. A much earlier study looking at the differences between women and men in binge eating disorder found the same relationship. Women overate when they experienced difficult emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression – and men did not.
Why People Overeat
The reasons people give when asked why they overeat are typically: “to make me feel better” “food soothes me,” “eating calms me down,” “food reduces my anger,” “it takes the edge off my stress,” or “it numbs me.” Individuals who have engaged in emotional overeating have experienced these feelings and thus may be less likely to try a healthier approach to stress reduction, such as taking a walk or listening to music. After all, these methods may not make one feel as good.
How Food Reduces Emotional Distress & Why Women Are More Likely To Eat When Stressed
Is it because eating junk food soothes women’s taste buds? Or is it the chewing that brings relief? Is this a social phenomenon? Are men embarrassed by reaching for a brownie rather than a glass of Scotch when they feel stressed? Certainly, in the past, the media commonly showed men tell each other that they “need a drink” when dealing with a stressful situation. Rarely do they pat each other on the shoulder and go off to eat a croissant.
What’s The Brain Got To Do With It?
When serotonin is released in the brain, stress appears to be relieved, and the edge is taken off of intense emotions. The synthesis and activation of serotonin occurs when sweet and/or starchy carbohydrates are eaten. However, if the carbs are eaten with fat, the serotonin release process is slowed down because the carb is digested more slowly. Additionally, if the carbs are consumed with protein, no serotonin will be released in the brain. This works with all carbs, except for fructose from fruit. So eating carb snacks is actually a form of self-medication because it leads to serotonin production and stress relief.
Serotonin Production in Male & Female Brains
So why are women more likely to turn to food than men? Wouldn’t men also need to make more serotonin to relieve their stress?
In comparison to female brains, male brains may actually contain more serotonin. In a study done about 25 years ago, researchers found that after taking away the ability of both men and women to produce serotonin in their brains, the men’s rate of serotonin synthesis was 52% faster than women.
In a more recent study, researchers used PET scans to see differences in serotonin activity between men and women – and the results showed lower activity among women.
Such differences in serotonin levels have been used to explain the higher incidence of depression in women, but it also may explain why they are more likely to consume carbohydrates when they feel stressed. If their serotonin levels are lower than in male brains, they may also be more sensitive to the relief of serotonin in the brain from eating carbs.
How Emotional Overeaters Can Feel Better Without Weight Gain
The challenge, of course, is that binge eaters eat significantly more carbs than necessary to increase their brain’s serotonin. They also eat high-fat carbohydrate snacks – and if protein is consumed simultaneously, serotonin will not be released in the brain. For those who follow a carb-free or restricted diet, there really is no hope of increasing brain serotonin and relieving stress.
The solution is to eat about 25 grams of a starchy carbohydrate like pretzels, wait 30 minutes and check in to see if anything has changed. The crackers and ultimately, the serotonin won’t eliminate stress, but it should certainly help make it easier to tolerate. This is just one component of The Serotonin Power Diet, which we created specifically for individuals struggling with stress eating and those who overeat on antidepressants.
Learn more and download your free 7-day meal plan.
“The Interplay of Gender, Mood, and Stress Hormones in the Association between Emotional Eating and Dietary behavior,” Beydoun M, The Journal of Nutrition, 2014; 144: 1139-1141.
“Comparison of men and women with binge eating disorder,” Tanofsky M1, Wilfley D, Spurrell E et al, Int J Eat Disord.1997; 21:49-54.
“Differences between males and females in rates of serotonin synthesis in human brain,” Nishizawa S, Benkelfat C, Young S et al, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1997; 94:5308-5313.
“Sex differences in the serotonin 1A receptor and serotonin transporter binding in the human brain measured by PET,” Jovanovic H, Lundberg, J, Karlsson P, et al, NeuroImage 2008; 39:1408–1419.