Two months ago I was given the opportunity to write about physical exercise and PTSD along with my own guest spot on the weekly #PTSDChat radio show. The topic was one that previously hadn’t been discussed on the radio show and because of its freshness we were able to explore many dimensions of it without being boxed into any particular subject. As the conversation flowed we found ourselves speaking about nutrition and the role it plays for those suffering from the symptoms related to PTSD. We had such a great time talking about food (not to mention the hunger it created afterwards) that another great topic for the show was birthed within the next several hours.
When we think about behavioral health issues one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is all of the maladaptive coping strategies that are related to them such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and both controlled and uncontrolled substances. It is very certain that these can be harmful in many ways but we tend to overlook how food can be considered a maladaptive coping strategy as well.
Food plays a big part in our lives and these days even more so as we constantly talk about it, we watch cooking shows and even take pictures of it (known to some as food porn). Sadly a bigger emphasis has been put on bad eating habits as millions struggle with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, to name a few. Society standards also play a role in the way people eat because of the perception of what a “healthy” person should look like, creating even lower self esteem issues than the ones that they already might be struggling with.
Before I continue I want to clarify that emotional eating is not the same as an eating disorder (though it may eventually lead to one if not properly taken care of). For it to be considered an eating disorder a certain criteria needs to be met such as frequency and severity. A great example of this is binge eating. According to the DSM-5, for someone to be diagnosed with a binge eating disorder they would have to be eating in a discrete period of time (for example, within any 2-hour period), and the amount of food definitely has to be larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances. This type of behavior needs to occur on average, at least once a week for three months to be considered an illness.
Food as a Coping Mechanism
Emotional eating is more related to consuming food under emotional distress. When a person is feeling anxious or sad, their eating habits change and they tend to view food as a distraction from what they are feeling in that particular moment. Food also provides a level of comfort and in certain ways it can transport you to a point in time where you felt at home. I remember a persistent thought I had during Basic Training about my aunt’s cup of coffee. Although her coffee is very good, I’m pretty sure that being away amplified its overall greatness. On the exact day that I returned from my training I told my wife to take me to my aunt’s house for that cup of coffee I longed for. As I took that first sip, a feeling of relief came over me and made me feel like I was home again. When people are dealing with their emotions they tend to look for it as a “safe haven” because of all of the soothing that comes along with it.
Aside from the psychological factor associated with it, there are also some foods that trigger mood-boosting hormones that serve as natural relaxers. Take chocolate for example. Because cacao has such a high content of magnesium it helps relieve anxiety and improve a person mood. Chocolate also produces the compound anandamide. The chemical reaction that it creates in our brains serves to temporarily block pain and depression.
For those dealing with anxiety issues, a similar reaction occurs when they are nervous as they look for foods high in sugar to calm down. As contrary as this may sound, these types of foods offer comfort in a time of nervousness. The reason this occurs is because during a stressful period of time our bodies become hypersensitive and are working on all cylinders. When this manifests, the anxiety we are experiencing depletes our bodies from the energy we have causing us to crave more sugar, sweets and foods high in carbohydrates in order to refuel.
If you are struggling with something of this nature see a nutritionist so they can implement a meal plan. Nutritionists are the experts in this area and can offer a great amount of education on the matter. Also, getting a schedule of what foods to eat can help us stay mentally prepared to eat smarter than we normally do in moments of stress. Another great tool to record your food intake is an emotional journal. Write about how you feel and what you were eating in order to gain good insight on what the real problem may be. This can give you an idea of what triggers you and how you felt before and after overindulging yourself.
Another way to avoid sweets and unhealthy foods is to snack smart. Cravings don’t necessarily mean that you have to make an unhealthy choice; there are plenty of healthy alternatives out there. My go-to snack is a spoonful of peanut butter with a banana (or low fat yogurt). Those that know me well are well aware that I can write an entire blog post on my love for peanut butter and its benefits, but the biggest reason for me is that it helps me suppress those cravings for sweets.
When it comes to emotions and the way we eat, we must recognize that our feelings can sometimes lead us into making decisions that are often unhealthy. Most people may believe that there is no real harm in a couple of candy bars here and there when they are going through life situations, but if this is not monitored it can lead to other issues such as an a eating disorder, obesity, diabetes or insomnia. Because it is almost impossible to eliminate our emotions, the best course of action is to look for better ways of coping with them. Look for help if you have a sudden change in weight or appetite. It is very important to educate ourselves as best we can before it spirals out of control.
Click on the link below and take the test to see if there is a chance you have an eating disorder.
David J. Ortiz (MSW) is an Iraq war veteran educated in Military Behavioral Health. He is currently focusing his energy towards assisting service members in living well-rounded, productive lives. You can find him occasionally on Twitter as @balancedsoldier and if you want to read some of his past posts you can find them @ facebook.com/balancedsoldierlife/ Also, checkout his Instagram page instagram.com/balancedsoldier if you’re looking for motivational and uplifting content. Namasté