Emotions, Nutrition, and Multiple Sclerosis

Woman Cooking Vegetables on Stove in Kitchen

2 Oct 2018 | ~5:07 Engagement Time


Mona Bostick , Dietician


When emotions and food are combined, the conversation becomes complex quickly. Then when you add the impact of an unpredictable disease like MS, the complexity turns up a few notches. 

But the interactions of emotions, nutrition, and MS is something so many of us deal with every single day. So, let’s get to know the many reasons why we eat and what we can do to promote healthful eating. 

How and Why We Eat: Understanding Hunger and Fullness Cues

A cue is simply a trigger that encourages you to act in a certain way. Very often, people are not aware of these cues, and how they impact our behaviors and choices.  

Appetite is the desire to eat food. There are numerous hormones that play a role in our appetite. These hormones send signals or internal cues telling you to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. This system allows your body to regulate how much food is eaten, which helps to maintain your body’s weight and energy balance. 

However, there are many external cues that can disrupt this system and make it more difficult to recognize and respond to our internal cues of hunger and fullness. 

External Cues That Affect Our Eating:

  • Social situations. For example, you’re invited to Happy Hour, snacks are served, and your friends are all eating. Or, for another example, you’re bored and at home alone, so you wander into the kitchen and spot your favorite snack. 
  • Time of day. For example, you may be held to a strict lunch hour at work, so you feel obligated to eat at that time. 
  • Sensory properties of food. For example, the delicious scent of soft pretzels at the mall! 
  • Pain. In this case, a symptom of pain may make you uninterested or unable to eat. Or for some people, pain may make you seek out “comfort foods.” 
  • Stress, depression, or anxiety. Much like pain, these emotions can stir different reactions in different people.

External cues often come into play without our realizing it and impact many aspects of how we eat. These cues can affect whether we enjoy our food, how much food we eat (or don’t eat), and whether we feel things like fear, shame, guilt, or stress around our food choices. “Diets” and food rules are also examples of external cues that disrupt our ability to eat in response to our internal cues. 

Emotional Eating

Sometimes food becomes a coping tool. 

Whether it’s finding comfort in a food from your childhood or in the structure of restrictive food rules, sometimes, food becomes a coping tool. Is this a bad thing? 

Well, using food as your only coping skill isn’t going to lead to optimal mental or physical health. However, it is also not healthy to create extra stress and anxiety around food!  

Just because you are aware that certain external cues affect your eating, doesn’t mean you need to overthink or get nervous that you’re eating for the wrong reasons. It’s OK if you “emotionally eat” sometimes. Really! 

What you can do is try to notice when a certain feeling causes a certain behavior. By doing so, you are setting yourself up to try new and different ways of coping with your emotions. You can reframe your thoughts, disrupt the negative feelings, and change your behaviors. 

Instead of trying to get rid of emotional eating as a coping tool, try to fill your toolbox with several other coping tools so that you have many ways to soothe yourself when you’re feeling anxious, lonely, depressed, annoyed, frustrated, etc. You might consider calling a friend to vent frustration, or keep a journal, meditate, go for a walk, take a nap, watch a funny movie, listen to your favorite music, or engage in a hobby.   

Allow food to be one of several tools and whenever you choose to eat as a way of coping, try to remain mindful during the eating experience. Notice how the food is making you feel, and then, move on. 

Listening to Internal Cues and Other Health-Promoting Techniques

Here are a few tools that are not diets, but rather, useful strategies for anyone who wants to get in sync with their internal hunger and fullness cues or find a new mindset about what it means to eat “healthy.” 

  1. Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is a useful tool for combating the disruption of external cues. It keeps us focused on the act of eating, allowing us to tune in to how hungry or full our we are feeling. This in turn allows allowing us to respond accordingly.  

Mindfulness is about getting good at feeling what’s present and knowing yourself better. 

  1. Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating encourages trusting your body to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from external cues. 

Both mindful eating and intuitive eating are tools to help you reconnect with your body. Neither can be done “perfectly.” Perfection, after all is another external cue, right?  

  1. 80/20 “Rule”

This “rule” is really more of a guideline. It might appeal to people who find comfort in structure. The 80/20 rule is about balance, not perfection. 

It goes like this: if you are choosing nourishing foods and engaging in other health-promoting habits 80% of the time, then it is not going to significantly impact your health if you make different choices during the other 20% of the time.  

What does this look like in practice? It could simply mean savoring the amazing foods on your once-in-a-lifetime vacation. It could also include occasionally indulging in your favorite comfort food after a long difficult week. 

However, if that balance gets flipped and you only make health-promoting choices 20% of the time… you will likely begin to see a negative impact on your health. It will be OK! You may want to reach out to your healthcare team for assistance getting back into balance. 

Finding a Healthy Relationship with Food

Sometime, people with MS seek to take back some of the control that the disease stole from them by following restrictive food rules and practices. But consider this: Who becomes more in control through restrictive dieting practices? Isn’t it the food that is in control? 

Food is an important part of a healthy eating pattern, but so is: 

  • Being flexible in our food choices 
  • Eating a variety of foods 
  • Enjoying our food 
  • Enjoying food with family and friends 

Foodrelated habits are also important to your overall health. Arbitrary restrictions or eliminating whole food groups means that you have fewer options to eat, depriving your body of the variety it craves. Being overly focused on food, or placing moral judgements on food, can be detrimental to your mental health, or lead to eating patterns that are not health-promoting 

Be Patient with Yourself

It is not impossible to reconnect with your internal cues 

It takes a great deal of time and effort to counter old habits and build new ones. Begin with small steps and stay focused as you learn to recognize food triggers and change your responses to them. Learning to manage cues appropriately is just part of your journey toward a healthier eating pattern.