Why Are Sweets A Particular Problem For Emotional Eaters?

Many emotional eaters don’t care what they eat when they are triggered with a negative feeling.  They eat whatever they can find in the kitchen because they have been conditioned to eat.

Other emotional eaters specifically crave sweets.  They will eat non-sweets if that is all that’s available, but they prefer sweets when they have been triggered (or when beliefs drive them) to eat.

Why emotional eaters prefer sweets

There is research that explains why many emotional eaters prefer sweets.  In a Newsweek article (June 25, 2009), Kate Dailey described some of the research.

“The desire for sweetness is hardwired into humans—give babies a little sugar on their lips and they’ll smile. That’s because up until the advent of artificial additives, sweet flavors signified calorie-dense foods. …

“Whether one likes the taste of sugar a little or a lot, sweet foods react with everyone’s brains in the same way—by producing a rush of chemicals, including dopamine, which creates an opiate-like effect. ‘In Sweden, sweet-tasting foods like sugar solutions are used as anesthetic to do minor surgeries,’ says Dr. Kampov-Polevi.  Sugar water is also used in the US on babies for minor procedures like blood draws.”

Consider why emotional eaters eat when confronted with negative feelings. As I’ve described in detail in prior posts, they want to escape those feelings by going numb.  To the extent that sweet foods, in particular, numb us somewhat, then sweet foods would be the most effective type of food to give an emotional eater what she wants.

Sweets reduce anxiety

Further research indicates that in addition to numbing us, sweet foods also create positive feelings that serve as a pleasurable distraction, thereby effectively reducing the stress that is caused by most negative feelings.

Dr. Charles Raison, at Psychiatrist at Emory University Medical School, points out that, “In addition to stimulating brain reward centers, sweet food markedly affects stress hormones in ways likely to provide a sense of temporary reprieve from anxiety.”  That is precise what emotional eaters want.

One of the most impressive studies to demonstrate how sugar reduces stress was reported on by UPI just a few months ago (November 10, 2010).  The wire service story states:

“Eating, sex and other pleasurable activities provide more than enjoyment, they reduce stress by inhibiting anxiety responses in the brain, U.S. researchers say. [Emphasis added.]

“Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, a research assistant professor, and James Herman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, both at the University of Cincinnati, and colleagues also indicate that these reduced-stress effects continue for at least seven days.

“’These findings give us a clearer understanding of the motivation for consuming “comfort food” during times of stress,’ Ulrich-Lai says in a statement. ‘But it’s important to note that, based on our findings, even small amounts of pleasurable foods can reduce the effects of stress.’

“Twice a day rats were provided access to a sugar solution for two weeks. The rats with access to sugar had reduced heart rates and stress hormone levels ….

“Rats fed a solution artificially sweetened with saccharin showed similar stress reduction responses, as did rats given access to sexually responsive partners. But sugar supplied directly to the stomach did not blunt the rats’ stress response, the researchers say.

“’This indicates that the pleasurable properties of tasty foods, not the caloric properties, were sufficient for stress reduction,’ Ulrich-Lai says.”

While it might be somewhat harder to stop eating sweets than other foods, it still is possible to de-condition eating so that it is no longer the main way emotional eaters deal with negative feelings.  Moreover, it is possible to eliminate the beliefs and conditionings that cause the negative feelings.  And even most importantly, it is possible to learn to live with negative feelings without having to do anything to “cope” with them.

For more details, please see my eBook, The Secret to Ending Overeating For Good, at http://emotionaleatingreport.com.  You also can get answers to specific questions at my office, 415-884-0552.

1,490 thoughts on “Why Are Sweets A Particular Problem For Emotional Eaters?”

  1. Hi Morty:

    You outdid yourself with this one. It explains so much. Although sugar has all these effects, not everyone is an emotional eater who craves sugar…I take that to mean that those of us who do (like me) can break the habit …as I have from working with you. I also liked your last comment that we can live with negative feelings without doing anything to cope with them. I think I learned to use sugar to cope when I was a kid without other coping strategies. As an adult, I have many strategies for dealing with difficult feelings, including just letting myself experience them and seeing if they are useful and informative in some way. A

  2. Hi Morty,
    Thanks to the belief removal , I am now able to create a space and be a witness to my sugar craving, quite calmly. You cant imagine what a relief it is to let go of the frantic, numbing grabbing of anything sweet and continue to pretend one is not an addict!
    I am treading very carefully with this newly learnt response and nurture it every time I say NO. Guess what, I don’t even feel a teeny bit deprived.
    Please keep up these emotional eating blogs as they are wonderfully supportive
    Kiran Patki

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