My Hormonology

Struggle with emotional eating–the kind of eating done when you’re blue, stressed, anxious or bored that leads to feelings of guilt, shame or regret?

You’re far from alone. Many folks turn to food for emotional comfort. That’s because it’s an easy way to distract yourself from the negative emotion you’re feeling and counter it with a temporary surge in positive emotions as the food prompts a flood of dopamine (a chemical that gives you a rewarding feeling) in the brain.

The connection between emotional eating and hormones

While you know that certain emotions can make you want to turn to food for comfort, research shows that just how likely you are to do so actually fluctuates throughout your menstrual cycle.

According to a study led by Michigan State University eating disorder researcher Kelly Klump, Ph.D., during the second half of your cycle (your Week 3 and Week 4, which spans from the day after ovulation to the day before your next period) you’re two to four times more likely to turn to emotional eating than you are during the first half of your cycle (your Week 1 and Week 2, which spans from the first day of your period through ovulation).

Your hormones impact why you turn to emotional eating

Expanding on that research, Klump led another study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science that found estrogen and progesterone contribute to emotional eating two different ways:

During the first half of your cycle, while you’re less likely to use food for comfort, when you do, it’s because rising estrogen is making you more sensitive to environmental cues. These are influences outside your body, for instance, if you’re with a group of friends who are all eating, you’re watching a movie or you’re doing another activity that makes you think more about food.

During the second half of your cycle, which is a time when you’re more prone to emotional eating, it’s because progesterone is changing genes in the brain that lead to a greater tendency to turn to food to alleviate emotional distress. Which means you’re getting a stronger urge to eat from within.

Overcoming emotional eating

The obvious downside of turning to food to temper moods is that eating too much can lead to obesity and obesity-related ailments, such as heart conditions, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

In addition, it can lead to eating disorders, such as binge eating (overeating) or bulimia (purging after overeating).

If emotional eating is interfering with your life, consider talking with a cognitive behavioral therapist who can help you change the patterns you turn to when dealing with negative emotions.

And use this new hormone-related information to your advantage:

During the first half of your cycle, try to pay closer attention to cues outside yourself that may be increasing your desire to eat when not hungry.

And during the second half of your cycle, try to pay closer attention to cues within your body that tell you when you’re hungry and when you’ve eaten enough to feel full. Studies show that mindfulness meditation–a practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath as you slowly inhale and exhale–can help you become more in tune with these internal cues.

Also helpful: Try one or more of these study-proven tips all cycle long to curb your emotional eating:

1. Think about thisNext time you’re tempted to eat when you’re down or stressed, focus on the reasons those negative feelings will pass. And if you’re tempted to eat to congratulate yourself or celebrate, think about reasons those good feelings will last. In a 2009 study, a research team out of the University of Chicago and University of Michigan found that emotional eating is often a result of people trying to improve their mood–whether it’s to chase away negativity or prolong positivity. But, if you realize you don’t need food to manage your mood, you’ll be reminded of your long-term goals–for instance, lowering your blood pressure or fitting into your favorite jeans–which makes you more likely to skip excess eating.

2. Imagine a positive future: When the urge to reach for food when you’re not hungry pops up, block out all thoughts about your past and instead focus on positive plans and outcomes about your future–for instance, how happy and proud you’ll be when you pass a class, finish a project or write a new song. A 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals that thoughts about past events–even happy ones–can trigger emotional eating that drives you straight toward comfort foods. On the other hand, combining positive thoughts with thoughts about your future packs a double-whammy to cravings by strengthening your self-control and decreasing your desire for unhealthy foods.

3. Prepare non-food substitutes: Before a desire to use food as comfort arises, prepare to use your favorite non-food mood-lifting substitutes as alternatives, for instance, going for a walk, chatting with a best bud or heading to a yoga class. This way, you’ll be ready when you need an emotional boost that doesn’t come with all the extra fat and calories that can cause guilt.

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