5 Reasons Why Emotional Eaters Can’t Stop Eating Sugar

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three happy women eating
Health And Wellness

If you’re struggling to stop using "comfort foods" as your go-to means of soothing your uncomfortable emotions, you’re definitely not alone.

Emotional eating is done primarily to avoid, numb, or self-medicate unwanted feelings, stress, anxiety, and even happiness. It’s also the main reason attempts to lose weight or keep it off fail. 

Nearly all the people I’ve worked with to put an end to emotional eating blame their inability to change their behavior, despite their strong desire to, on a lack of willpower.

The truth is that it’s not a lack of anything — it’s the abundance of sugar.

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When you think of your favorite comfort food, chances are that sweet-tasting, carbohydrate-rich, processed foods are at the top of your list.

Or, to put it a bit more succinctly, foods that are loaded with sugar.

Why do emotional eaters find sugar-laden foods so irresistible? The sweet, pleasing taste is just the tip of the iceberg — and it’s a big iceberg.

Here are 5 reasons why emotional eaters just can't stop eating sugar.

1. It's in our nature.

Nature, in its brilliance, has hard-wired us to seek out sweet foods as a means of survival.

For most of human history, our ancestors had to go out and scavenge for food. Since that food wasn’t always so easy to come by, they had to be sure to get the most bang for their buck.

Over time, they learned to associate a sweet taste with high-energy foods.

These sweet foods were a pleasure to eat and provided the energy they needed to keep themselves and their families alive. They also learned that a bitter taste frequently meant poison.

So, not only were sweet foods the most nutritionally beneficial, but they were also the safest.

Nature’s goal is to keep us alive, healthy, and reproducing. Therefore, it hard-wired us to be instinctively drawn to eating sweet foods.

Nature uses the very same evolutionary process to reward other behaviors that ensure the survival of our species — forming bonds with others, seeking safety, clothing and shelter, and sex.

Practice the behavior, receive the reward. In the case of eating sugar-laden foods, nature rewards us by releasing "happy brain chemicals."

2. Sugar releases dopamine.

Eating sugar-loaded food signals the brain to release a big hit of dopamine, the most powerful of the "feel good" chemicals.

Although referred to as a "happy hormone," dopamine is not actually a hormone, but a very powerful neurotransmitter. It's the "pleasure and reward" chemical in your brain.

This surge of dopamine makes you feel happy, energized, and alert. It temporarily gives you a rush of pleasure and lifts your spirits, like being on a rollercoaster.

But, unlike a roller coaster ride, not only do you come back down to where you started, you also feel tired, lethargic, and even cranky.

Your mind knows just exactly how to solve this problem and kicks into high gear, triggering powerful cravings for… Well, more sugar, of course.

And the cycle repeats and repeats and repeats.

3. Sugar is also heavily involved in the production of serotonin.

Serotonin, the "happy" hormone," is referred to both as a neurotransmitter and as a hormone.

Although some serotonin is produced in the brain, about 90 percent is actually produced in the gut and the very pleasant effects are felt throughout the body as well as in the mind.

When serotonin levels are low, one’s mood typically heads in the same direction, leading to intense sugar cravings, lack of impulse control, and a host of other unwanted symptoms.

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Nature’s solution? A craving for carbohydrate-rich, sugary foods. The reason is twofold.

First, sugar serves as the transporter of the amino-acid tryptophan, which is what serotonin is made from.

And, because nature is so efficient and wants you to feel good as soon as possible, the sugar triggers a surge of dopamine to help lift your mood right away.

Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes your mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.

RELATED: 7 Ways To Stop Emotional Eating & Be Mindful Of Your Diet

4. Eating sugar triggers a big release of beta-endorphins.

As if the feel-good effects from the release of dopamine and serotonin weren’t enough to excite the cravings for sugar in an emotional eater, there’s also the rush from beta-endorphins.

Beta-endorphins have a wide array of positive effects on your mind, your body, and, most importantly, your emotions.

Endorphins are powerful natural painkillers for both physical and emotional pain. They produce a sense of well-being, reduce pain, ease emotional distress, increase self-esteem, and can even create a sense of euphoria.

Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.

5. Eating sugar for emotional comfort has become a deeply ingrained habit.

Human beings are creatures of habit. When we find something that serves our needs, we repeat that behavior over and over.

It makes perfect sense because it makes our lives easier. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time the same need pops up.

All habits literally become wired into your brain, including emotional eating.

When you feel emotionally distraught, you eat sweet foods to lift your spirits. So, your brain recognizes eating all of that sugar as a very positive experience. It decides to store that information for the next time you’re feeling down.

The process by which your brain stores this experience is called neuroplasticity. It literally encodes and stores that information in a groove in your brain.

Every time you eat those sugary foods and feel good as a result, that process reinforces itself. The groove deepens and widens, further strengthening the habit and making the behavior even more automatic in the future.

Once you’ve created the habit of using food as your response to emotional distress, your subconscious mind thinks, "I feel emotionally uncomfortable and I don’t like feeling this way."

The next thought is, "How do I relieve my emotional discomfort?"

Then, "I eat sweet foods."

The next thing you know, you’re indulging in your favorite sugar-laden comfort foods and then chastising yourself for not being able to resist.

Knowing the reasons why you’ve been struggling to put an end to your emotional eating habit is an all-important first step in finally breaking free of this unwanted behavior.

It allows you to let go of the negative thought pattern of "If I only had more willpower, I’d be able to stop this emotional eating," which leads to self-blaming and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, armed with the knowledge that sugar is exerting several very powerful influences on maintaining your emotional eating behaviors, you can begin to chart a new course.

RELATED: 6 Mindful Ways To Stop Emotional Stress Eating In Its Tracks

Jim McNerney is a mind-body eating coach who works with individuals to help permanently put an end to yo-yo dieting, emotional eating, and binge eating. You can begin to change your emotional-eating habits now by downloading Jim’s eBook, “7 Tips to Reduce Your Emotional Eating Right Now.”