Do you sometimes eat beyond being full? Do you feel like your brain is wired to crave food? It turns out you may be right about that. This discussion about the relationship between food and feelings explains how curiosity may be the simple key to breaking the cycle of emotional eating.

Recent research indicates that parts of our brains may be working against us to reinforce food cravings and confuse our relationship with food and weight. Understanding how emotions affect the brain’s reward system is the first step toward breaking the persistent habits that can develop around eating.

Our Brain’s Reward System

Early humans had to find or kill their food in order to survive. Hunger was the sensation that triggered the need to eat food. Eating satisfies hunger and supports the survival of the species. Because our brains continually evolve to help us adapt to our environment, the triggers and rewards associated with food have shifted.

Food is readily available for most people now. Survival is less and less the impulse that has us grabbing a bag of chips. Emotional distress can be a primary contributor to the decisions we make about food. Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Dr. Judson Brewer has devoted his work to helping people overcome addictions. His work shows that eating to avoid feelings can trap us in a rigid habit loop.

The Cycle of Emotional Eating

What is emotional eating? When we eat certain foods, we may feel a boost in our mood for a while. Foods that contain high sugar or fat content can release brain chemicals, such as dopamine, that provide temporary relief from stress and difficult emotions. Chocolate, for instance, has specific chemical properties that are known to improve mood.

Behavior that comes with a payoff gets our attention. We tend to repeat the reward-based behavior, time and time again, in hopes of recreating the payoff. This overview of the brain’s original reward system can help illustrate how our reaction to feelings can hijack the system and foster an emotional eating disorder:

  1. Trigger – We notice an uncomfortable sensation.
  2. Behavior – We eat in order to feel better.
  3. Reward – We feel better.

The problem with this cycle arises when the emotional lift we receive from the food begins to dissipate, and we sink into regret or self-loathing over our eating choices.

Our feelings and judgments about what or how much we eat create a new level of discomfort. We may feel scared that we will gain weight or feel disgusted with ourselves for breaking out diet rules. Those painful feelings fast become the new trigger that sends us back into the loop. You can see how our brains set us up for becoming trapped in the insidious cycle.

Understanding that unpleasant emotions carry important information is half the battle. Pushing feelings away with food prolongs our discomfort and deprives us of moving forward. The key to interrupting the cycle of emotional eating is simple. Cultivating curiosity about your unpleasant feelings, even though you may have the impulse to avoid them, is the way to start moving through and beyond them.

Obscuring feelings by eating food will never be a successful strategy in the long run. So what do you do to free yourself from this craving loop?

Interrupting Your Cravings

Evidence-based research shows us that willpower and diets don’t work for most people. Breaking the spell of the food-craving cycle requires some education and some willingness to try something different.

Mindfulness training has the potential to teach us the difference between an emotional cue and a physical cue to eat. Once we understand this, we are well on our way to breaking the craving cycle. The goal of mindfulness is not to eat less or eliminate our emotional discomfort; it’s simply to notice the thoughts and feelings that precede the impulse to reach for food.

Since our brains are accustomed to avoiding unpleasant feelings, we can apply curiosity to gently begin to lessen the pull toward the endless loop. Curiosity can help us discover volumes of lifelong inner scripts that have been holding us back. Working with the scripts helps us begin creating a healthier relationship with food.

Cultivating Mindfulness With Food

For several decades, research has shown mindfulness is an effective clinical strategy for achieving stress reduction, cognitive improvement, emotional balance, and even relationship satisfaction. Applying it to food and eating begins with tuning in. Next time you are about to reach for food, try the following mindfulness practice:

  1. From a place of curiosity, pay attention to what sensations and feelings you notice in your body, focusing on simple noticing rather than evaluating or judging.
  2. Stay with the curiosity for a few minutes, and notice whether the feeling quality shifts or stays the same.
  3. See if you can identify the emotions that trigger your cravings and create false hunger.
  4. Begin to take notice of what authentic hunger feels like in your body.
  5. Be aware of how craving feels different from true hunger in your body.

This process is simple, but it requires willingness. You can start with just a few seconds of mindfulness to test the waters and then increase as you feel comfortable.

Ignoring our feelings or grabbing a donut to distract from them generally does not help us achieve our goal. Avoiding feelings can actually magnify their presence. Placing attention on them is the way to shift the mechanism of behavioral change in your brain.

Mindfulness is a practice, not an event. You can continue to cultivate awareness each time you notice the urge to eat something. It’s helpful to apply mindfulness techniques to every aspect of eating. Try noticing the types of food you choose and pay attention to how it feels to nourish yourself when you are hungry or to stop eating when you are satiated. With practice, the process generally becomes more automatic.

Bringing mindful awareness to emotional eating works. The new pathways in your brain become your new habits. Check out our app-based program and community support network to begin making food decisions that are more congruent with hunger and less based on emotions.