Updated: Sep 17, 2019
We don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We also turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. It usually makes you feel worse.
Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating. Learning to recognize your emotional eating triggers is the first step to breaking free from food cravings and compulsive overeating, and changing the habits that have sabotaged your diets in the past.
Understanding Emotional Eating
If you’ve ever made room for dessert even though you’re already full or dove into a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling down, you’ve experienced emotional eating.
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach.
Using food from time to time as a pick me up or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re upset, angry, lonely, stressed, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower. Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight, and you feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings.
Emotional hunger & Physical hunger
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly.
Physical hunger comes on gradually.
Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly.
Physical hunger can wait.
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods.
Physical hunger is open to options–lots of things sound good.
Emotional hunger isn't satisfied with a full stomach.
Physical hunger stops when you're full.
Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame.
Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn't make you feel bad about yourself.
Common Causes of Emotional Eating
Stress – The stress hormone, Cortisol, triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and high-fat foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the emotions you’d rather not feel.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits – Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream or give you sweets when you were feeling sad? These emotionally-based childhood eating habits often carry over into adulthood.
Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness.
Keep an Emotional Eating Diary
You probably recognised yourself in at least a few of the previous descriptions. But even so, you’ll want to get even more specific. One of the best ways to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary.
Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort food Kryptonite, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. If you backtrack, you’ll usually find an upsetting event that kicked of the emotional eating cycle. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward.
Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a critical friend. Or perhaps you stress eat whenever you’re on a deadline or when you attend family functions. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to feed your feelings.
Find other ways to feed your feelings
If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice, as if the only thing keeping you from eating right is knowledge. But that kind of advice only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food.
In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
Stop – Don’t react automatically
Take Five Breaths – Slow your heart
Observe – What am I reacting to?
Perspective – Am I getting this out of proportion?
Practice what works – what’s the most helpful thing I could do?