Aligning Our Diet With Our Emotional State

Using connectedness to nourish our bodies

By: rē•spin
Aligning Our Diet With Our Emotional State

We’ve all experienced how food can affect our feelings, but rarely do we consider the inverse: how do emotions influence how we eat?

Think back to your latest food craving. How were you feeling at the time? Were you stressed? Upset? Angry? Or perhaps in a good mood? Our emotions factor into our decisions surrounding food more than we may think. If you’ve ever craved sugary or fatty foods when you’re stressed, for example, you’ve likely experienced the effects of cortisol, the hormone your body produces under duress. Identifying the connection between a craving and a particular feeling empowers us to rē-spin our emotions and to make more mindful decisions surrounding how we nourish ourselves. 

“My philosophy is to eat for a stable blood sugar, and when we do that, so many systems in the body can operate more efficiently,” Cara Clark, a functional nutritionist, tells rē•spin. “We have happier hormones for better moods. We are able to utilize stored fat to burn for fueling various energy systems in the body.” 

The connection between mood and food

There is a relationship between how we feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually and what we consequently consume. 

“While our mood shifts have various contributing factors, there is no denying the connection to our cravings,” says Clark. “Often, it’s less controllable like a hormone shift. But sometimes, it’s the stress we are bearing and not managing that impacts the foods we choose. If we are stuck in a vicious cycle, it’s extra important to understand the correlation between cravings and emotions.”

When considering the connection between our moods and cravings, we tend to think of the strong desire for sweets that usually arises when we feel heavy-hearted. But we may also experience that same craving when we feel a sense of accomplishment and want to reward ourselves. That’s because our relationship with food is also socially and culturally embedded. “We have become accustomed to think of treats as a celebratory food, which has affected our psychological state over time. Then we’ve become accustomed to comforting ourselves with certain foods,” says Clark. “We have been using food to cover up or enhance emotions, and so it’s a hard cycle to break.”

How our feelings manifest in our food choices

Food serves as a coping mechanism at times, a way for each of us to manage intense emotions on both ends of the spectrum. But what we crave can also be a direct result of something missing from our existing diets, too.

“A great deal of our moods can be directly caused by nutrient deficiencies or blood sugar fluctuations,” Clark says. “When we’re feeling super tired, we aren’t likely to take time to create a great power bowl lunch, or even all the fixings for a healthy dinner. We are likely to grab whatever is easiest: processed or fast food. Tired is a mood that I think people look past, giving reasons for their fatigue.”

On the flip side, positive moods play a role in our food choices, too. “When we feel good about ourselves, it’s a feeling that is easy to want to maintain,” says Clark. Think of the rush you get after a good fitness session. We may lean more towards fueling our body with something nutritious like a smoothie or a salad to retain that balance and energy. 

“It’s the one thing that makes healthy eating, not a dieting approach,” she says. “When we feel well from the foods we are eating, our mood is likely to also shift and, at the very least, be more stable. Another scenario is if we’re with a group of friends, the energy is great, and we’re all enjoying each other. Our mood is peaceful and content, and chances are we are less likely to overindulge.”

rē•gaining control of our cravings

There may come a time when we feel like our cravings are out of our control. However, through our connectedness and emotional awareness, we can tap into our inherent knowledge to rē-spin them into more thoughtful dietary choices. As Clark notes, we have much more self-control than we tend to give ourselves credit for.

“rē-spinning our choices starts with acknowledging the reason why we made the choice,” she explains. “If it is based on our emotional state, then we need to stop and choose again. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t have a [processed] treat or something savory, but we could practice using better, more real food options. Even with rē-spinning our choices, it’s important to acknowledge and give energy to the reason we feel our cravings are out of control in the first place.”

Instead of passively experiencing our emotions’ effect on our dietary habits, we can seize the opportunity to align the food we consume with our emotional state mindfully. And Clark says the first step to managing the stress in our lives is to find balance within our dietary habits.

When we eat for a stable blood sugar, by combining our macronutrients and eating every four hours, we are able to manage our stress and emotions better,” she explains. “We at least aren’t adding low blood sugar to the mix of our already-overwhelmed body. Making a plan for the day or the week will help us feel on track and that we’re doing something in the right direction. Even if we don’t stick to it completely, hopefully, there are some positive changes that come out of it that can help improve our mood and emotions.”

Making mindful changes

When it comes to her practices, Clark teaches a non-dieting approach. Rather than focusing on restrictions, she emphasizes eating real versus processed food. This shift makes us feel better from the inside out and enables our bodies to operate more efficiently. 

But in order to make mindful decisions about what to consume, Clark says it’s essential to recognize the feeling of eating right and to know how to manage our emotional responses to food. 

“Once we can get there and possibly even point out some foods that trigger us, it’s so much easier to be mindful about what we consume,” she says. “Most people feel out of control with their choices, or feel fear surrounding food.”

To put her clients on the path toward mindful eating without feeling restricted, Clark has developed her own philosophy for healthy eating:

  • Eat within an hour of waking up
  • Eat every four hours after
  • Always combine macros: 50% carbs, 25% protein, and 25% fat. 
  • Eat five different colors a day
  • Keep meal sizes consistent

While we’re developing more mindful dietary habits, we’re simultaneously strengthening our relationship with food and garnering more control over our emotions and triggers. Above all, consistency is key in order to make long-lasting changes, says Clark. 

“At some point, we have to feel we can regulate or control our reactions to our mood. In order to do this, our body has to feel mostly well,” she says. “We give ourselves the greatest advantage to mental health with physical health, and I’m not talking about a perfect weight. I’m talking about allowing the systems in your body to have the energy they need to function optimally and on a cellular level. When we do this, our relationship with food will permanently change. Our moods won’t feel like a giant pendulum swinging and controlling our emotions.”

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