Why You Eat Your Feelings, According To Science

And how to stop (if you want to.)
"Sad ice cream," by Flickr user Nicholas Mirguet.

Planning to have just one Girl Scout cookie is always the idea, then suddenly a whole sleeve of Samoas has disappeared. Who among us can honestly say such a slip of self-control has never happened? It is, quite literally, natural. When we eat certain things—sugar, usually, but also carbohydrates and proteins—parts of our brain light up with utter delight. Consuming sugar produces dopamine in your brain, as nutritionist Dana James explains. “Dopamine,” she says, “is a pleasure neurotransmitter, and so sugary foods are very pleasurable. And we need to have that response, otherwise people wouldn’t eat food.”


James holds a master of science from Columbia University in nutrition sciences, and is a registered clinical dietician and nutritionist who leverages both nutrition and psychotherapy to address her clients’ food-related issues.

On tonight’s new episode of THE ICE CREAM SHOW, James sits down to talk with our host Isaac Lappert about what exactly is happening in your brain when you demolish a pint of ice cream as if it’s a single-serving container while watching Netflix. We chatted with her some more about the science behind eating our feelings, and some simple strategies for learning how to cut ourselves off at a reasonable amount of snackage. You can tune in for more of James’ wisdom tonight at 10:30 PM on VICELAND.

MUNCHIES: So what is your educational background, and what kind of work do you do with food?

Dana James: I’m a nutritional therapist, cognitive behavioral therapist, and functional medicine practitioner. So I work with both the body and the mind, and I’m pulling on both of those modalities when a client comes to me—because for the most part, when the physical body is out of balance, there is a biochemical reason. And the core, core root of it tends to come from the emotional side of things. So the emotional aspect will change the physical body, which then, that’s when the person tends to come in. So to just look at changing what’s happening with the physical body, then you’re not getting all the way to the core root of what the issue is.


M: How do you go about diagnosing the sort of “eating your feelings” behavior that comes with binge eating a pint of ice cream?

DJ: I always explain to the person that there’s a physical aspect and an emotional aspect, and we work on the physical first. Because the emotional aspect is really an evolving process. So let’s say someone is coming in because they’re binge eating—say they’re binge eating on ice cream—and that behavior to them is so frustrating because it’s something they want to change but they really do not know how to change it.

So at that point that they’re coming to me, there is a physical response, but there’s also an emotional response. The physical response could be—number one, that there’s an imbalance in the brain chemistry, and so we can use precursors like amino acids to elevate, to alter that biochemistry.

The next place I would look is: Is the gut microbiome out of balance? Because the gut microbiome, which is the bacteria in the large [intestine], which has a huge influence on the brain chemistry. I might get an indication that that’s off because there might be symptoms of bloating—and maybe that’s all that it is—or intense sugar cravings that felt out of control, it’s highly likely that there’s a yeast or a bacterial or a parasite that’s contributing to those cravings.

And the third piece would be the diet. … Is the sugar craving coming in because the diet is out of balance, and there’s a sudden blood sugar drop? … That is a major player in why people have sugar cravings. Obviously, the more sugar they eat, the more sugar they want. If they’re adding sweeteners, even something like Stevia, can really trigger these cravings. So I’ll work in my first session on these aspects. So then the next time I see that person, there’s already a drop in those cravings, and then we’ll get into the mind. Because if you move all the way down to the core of it—when we crave sugar, it’s because of a lack of connection. So typically what’s happening is that we’re using sugar as a proxy for a lack of connection in our lives. And far too often, practitioners will only focus on the physical side of things.


M: What other foods do you see are common for binge eating?

DJ: Anything that’s carbohydrate based. So, you know, it could be bread or pasta. The second would be butters—nut butters. I see binge eating in women with nut butters all the time, particularly when they remove carbohydrates from their diets. Like half a container of nut butter will go in one sitting. … If you look at ice cream, that’s why—it’s fat and sugar. That high fat-carb combination. […] All carbs convert to glucose, which is a sugar, too. And we need to have that response, otherwise people wouldn’t eat food.

M: I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it that way, but yeah, if we never felt hungry, we’d never feed ourselves.

DJ: Well yeah! … There is such a focus on sugary foods as “a drug” or that they’re “addictive,” and—that’s not true! They’re not actually a drug. They’re not addictive. We cannot prove that there are extreme withdrawal effects from these sugary-based foods. All we can show is that it stimulates dopamine. Dopamine simply means that food is pleasurable. And what happens is that if we don’t stop saying that these foods are addictive, we disassociate and we take away our own responsibility. And that’s why when people say, “Oh, when I have candy or cake, or so forth, I can’t stop myself.” So you immediately remove yourself from the act. That’s not true. Whereas you empower yourself more if you can say, “Oh. Those foods are just really pleasurable. So if I start, my body is just going to keep telling me these are pleasurable and I want more.” So if you don’t want to get stuck in the “I’m going to keep eating the entire bag” mentality, you just [think to yourself], “these are actually just too pleasurable for me, I don’t have the ability to regulate myself, so I’m not going to have any right now.” Whereas, if you just say they’re a drug, they’re addictive—then it’s out of your control. And that’s not the case. It truly is in your control.


M: How do you treat a client who comes to you with this sort of issue?

DJ: The first thing I work on is the physical aspect, so I might give them amino acid precursors to adjust their neurochemistry just like a psychiatrist might prescribe pharmaceutical intervention. The second piece of it is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is known as CBT, which is the gold standard used for altering bingeing. So, CBT is changing perception. When you change perception, you change thoughts. You cause a three-fold change. I’ll give you an example here. When you change your perception, you change the emotional response, you change the behavioral response, and you change the physical response.

So let’s say there are amazing cookies that come out of the oven—beautiful chocolate chip cookies that smell incredible, and you’ve just said to yourself, ‘I’m only going to have one.’ But you know that you’re actually going to have like five, because they taste really good. Like, you know you’re going to do it before you even start. I’ve experienced it myself! Now, if we were to immediately change that desire in an instant—if you had a cat that came out and urinated all over those cookies, you would not want to eat them! Because your perception of those cookies is now grotesque. So in an instant, you’ve changed it, that’s your perception. That’s all you needed to do. No desire any more to eat those cookies. So that’s a very easy example to wrap your head around.


So, when CBT is used wisely and by a skilled therapist, it is a very powerful tool for changing behavior. And we can go all the way back to childhood with CBT to recall memories. So I might have clients who might love to sneak candy into places they shouldn’t have it. Because they did it as a six year-old. Right? It was their little time to themselves, and it was fun. And it’s so imprinted into them. And we have to go back and break down that memory, and change that so they can lose that desire.

M: So we’ve established that this sort of eating compulsion is definitely not the same as addiction, but in what ways are the treatments for what you work with and substance addiction similar?

DJ: It would be very similar. So, if you think about [Alcoholics Anonymous, known as AA]—so AA follows a very spiritual CBT model. It’s really getting back into forgiveness and a lot of childhood memories to understand why you were using alcohol or drugs in the first place. AA doesn’t use any type of pharmaceutical intervention, but in the same situation, a psychiatrist might. So this is well established in the addiction world to use those modalities.

Fascinating. Thanks for talking with us, Dana!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tune in tonight at 10:30 PM on VICELAND to see more of Dana James on the newest episode of THE ICE CREAM SHOW.