Break free from an emotional eating cycle and discover how to carve out a healthy relationship with food, says nutritionist Louise Pyne. 

Food has the power to induce feelings of happiness but when we are tempted to eat for reasons other than to quell hunger, it can cause a rollercoaster of negative health effects. Firstly, a disconnect between our emotions and our eating habits can result in overeating. This is because eating is a subconscious act, and we often don’t stop and think why we are reaching for certain foods.

Caving in to unhealthy cravings ­– in particular urges for sugary foods, can result in mood changes as your blood sugar levels fluctuate up and down. Insulin, (a hormone which manages glucose levels in the blood) transports glucose in the bloodstream to be stored in muscles, but once your muscles are full then it sends any excess glucose to your fat cells.

Weight gain

Over time this can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and even an increased risk of diabetes type two as your body produces more insulin and increases fat storage. Consuming too much sugar will also lower your immunity, increase inflammation and increase growth of bad bacteria in your gut.

On a cognitive level, excess sugar disturbs normal brain function by reducing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein which is linked to making new memories and learning and retaining information.

Seeking out sweet foods

Neurons in the brain release the reward neurotransmitter dopamine in response to eating sugar from which you experience pleasure. And so, you consume more in order to get the same pleasure hit. Over time your brain’s dopamine system builds up tolerance which creates a vicious cycle of excess consumption to try and fulfil unrelenting cravings.

Focus on the journey

The journey to healthy eating is a marathon and not a sprint, so aim to make manageable changes that you can stick to. Instead of focusing on deprivation, think about how you can make your diet better. This might mean loading up on an extra portion of vegetables at mealtimes or making sure that you start the day with a healthy breakfast.

Start with simple substitutions

Making healthy swaps is an easy way to cut down on sugar and fat and doesn’t necessarily mean you have to compromise on flavour. Official government guidelines state that adults should consume no more than 30g of free sugars (those found in foods such as biscuits and cakes per day. This works out as approximately seven sugar cubes – but the less sugar you consume the better so ideally it would be more beneficial to aim for half this amount. Replace white sugar for a small amount of honey or maple syrup, have brown rice, bread and pasta instead of white versions and oatcakes instead of biscuits. You could also replace high sugar fruits like grapes for low sugar apples and pears.

 Snack wisely

Eating little and often will help to keep blood sugar levels even. This means keeping lots of nutritious snacks on hand so that you don’t cave into unhealthy cravings the moment that hunger strikes. If you’re currently working from home you might be tempted to snack more than you usually would, so make sure that you always have healthy options available for a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack. Guacamole with crudités or a banana topped with almond butter are good options to keep those all-important blood sugar levels stable.

 Adopt a healthy mindset

A healthy mindset will help you to follow a balanced diet so don’t ban any food from your diet. Allow yourself the occasional treat as this will help you to strengthen your resolve to stick to a more nutritious diet overall. This could mean having your favourite ice cream or chocolate bar once a week but limiting portion size so that you still get to satisfy your taste buds without negatively affecting your waistline.

Avoid sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners take the place of traditional sugar in foods such as low-fat yoghurts or diet drinks, but research suggests that consuming sweeteners can stimulate the hunger cycle so that you actually eat more. Read food labels and avoid any pre-packaged foods that are made with artificial sweeteners.

Eat tryptophan foods

Tryptophan is an amino acid and co-factor in the production of the feel-good chemical messenger serotonin which helps to stabilise mood. Cheese, turkey, nuts and seeds are all tryptophan-rich foods which will help to manufacture serotonin.

Keep your gut healthy

A high-fibre diet which contains wholegrains along with probiotic-rich foods including sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt will help to fuel healthy gut bacteria. Research shows that digestive microflora plays a role in serotonin levels through the gut-brain axis so it’s important to keep beneficial bacteria flourishing. High fibre foods include fruit and veg, beans, legumes, bread, grains and nuts. Snacking on fruit is ideal – berries and apples are high-fibre choices.

Improve your sleep routine

Bad sleep habits can stimulate food cravings, so try to get your bedtime routine in check. Even one night of sleep can disrupt the function of your cerebrum – the area of the brain responsible for complex decision-making which could result in next day cravings. Poor sleep also disrupts levels of appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin whilst increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. All these imbalances can stimulate appetite meaning you eat more than usual after a bad night’s sleep. Avoiding technology and social media before bed, having a relaxing bath and sipping a sleep tea can all help to minimise stress in the evening so that you sleep better.