Food. It’s fuel. At least, it’s supposed to be fuel. As our culture has grown in diversity, so has our palate. We have explored a gamut of flavors, a variety of cuisines, and we have liked what we found. Yet, we still can’t shake our need to reach for the unhealthiest mass-produced, packaged foods. You know how it is.
You had a stressful day, it was particularly rough for whatever reason, and even though you have a fairly healthy dinner you find yourself craving a snack as you watch television. You immediately walk to the kitchen, you check out your snack stock in the pantry and you grab cookies, you reach for the chips, and for good measure, you grab a soda.
It was just a bad day, okay, I’m not normally like this. Yet, you repeat this habit. It becomes the norm. You realize you’re easily mowing through a pint or two of ice cream every week and you have to buy double the number of chips because they just keep disappearing. You’ve entered into a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating and it’s dragging you down.
What Is Emotional Eating
As evidenced above, humans don’t always eat just because they need to satisfy their hunger. We use food as a reward. We use food as a means to relieve stress. We use food as comfort.
All of these are examples of emotional eating. It might make you feel better in the moment, but you feel worse afterward. More importantly, it isn’t going to fix the emotional problems you are experiencing. So, you emotionally eat, you still have the emotional issue, and now you’ve got a dose of guilt to deal with, too.
According to the American Psychological Association…
- 43% of women and 32% of men reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress
- 38% of adults reported overeating unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress – 50% of these people also said do it this weekly or more often
- 33% reported that stress eating helped distract them from their stress
- 27% reported the use of food to manage stress
- 1/3 of those surveyed said stress eating is a habit
57% of overweight adults surveyed reported frequently engaging in emotional eating (Forty-three percent of women report having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress, compared to 32 percent of men; Fox, et al).
One of the first steps to dealing with emotional eating is learning what triggers it. It’s the only way to break from compulsive overeating and food cravings. The habits you have allowed to form are sabotaging you now.
You know how it is if you have made a joke about always having room for dessert even though you’re already stuffed. You know how it is if you’ve opened the freezer to open a new tub of ice cream to soothe your sadness. You have used food to make yourself feel better. You have used food to fill your emotional needs.
Food as a celebration, reward, or pick-me-up isn’t always a bad thing. If you treat your child to a pizza party after a big achievement, that is different from regularly using food as your primary mechanism to cope with emotions.
If you have had a rough day, if you are feeling super stressed, if you are angry, if you are lonely, bored, exhausted, or disappointed and you turn to food, then you are creating an unhealthy cycle around food and emotions.
Emotional hunger cannot be satiated with food. It might feel great at the moment, but it doesn’t get rid of the emotions that triggered emotional eating in the first place. In fact, it exacerbates them because you feel guilty for eating to deal with those feelings. You compound the issue by emotional eating and beat yourself up for not showing more willpower.
Emotional Hunger Versus Physical Hunger
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether you are experiencing physical or emotional hunger. You might be craving a delicious cookie, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing emotional hunger, your body might be telling you it’s truly hungry. Often, our cravings for sweets or carbs stems from feeling overly hungry. However, it could be a sign you’re bored. So, how do you tell the difference between the two? How do you know you’re experiencing physical hunger rather than emotional hunger? You ask some questions.
Satisfaction Or Relief
Do I want relief from a negative emotion? Or do I need to eat to fuel my body?
Of course, you can lie to yourself to feed your emotions, which is why a test is wise. Take a deep breath, hold it, and release it slowly.
Now, place your hand on the problem area of your body. Where did it go? Did it head straight for your rumbling stomach in need of fuel? Or did it head to your heart or head because you’re suffering or bored?
You can also have a glass of water to see if that solves the problem, sometimes we convince ourselves we’re hungry when the reality is, we are in need of hydration. Another helpful trick is to find something to do and wait 5-15 minutes to see if the hunger goes away.
Or ask yourself whether a healthy snack like a handful of nuts and plain yogurt sounds good. If it doesn’t, or it isn’t what you want, then you’re probably trying to feed an emotional hunger.
Emotional Or Physical
Am I going to eat in response to signs of physical hunger like lower energy or a rumbling stomach? Or am I doing to eat in response to signs of emotional hunger like happiness, fear, frustration, or anger?
The test here is to rate your hunger of a scale of 1 (absolutely starving) to 10 (beyond stuffed). On this scale, call 5 satiated. If you rate yourself below five, then you probably need to eat. If you rate yourself over five, then you do not and no matter what you eat it isn’t going to help how you are feeling.
The fix is simple. Try an orange. An orange is a great choice because it’s healthy, you can eat them mindfully (the act of peeling it and eating it segment by segment), and who doesn’t enjoy a sweet, vitamin C boost?
Nutritional or Palatable
Am I reaching for a nutritious snack or am I opting for something salty, fatty, or sugary?
If you are truly hungry, then just about any snack will do. When a specific taste or food is driving a craving, then there’s a good chance it isn’t about hunger but is based on emotion. When your emotions drive your cravings, it’s specific and that’s generally a want for comfort versus hunger.
Do yourself a favor and have healthy snacks available. It’s easier to reach for unhealthy food when there are no other options. So, keep plain yogurt on hand, add berries, and a drizzle of honey to jazz it up. Keep hummus and crudités in the fridge. Healthy food can still be exciting and delicious.
Lifelong or Transient
Is my relationship with food healthy? Or am I building a relationship based on fear, guilt, or anxiety?
Before you sit down to eat something, ask yourself how you think it will feel once you eat the first bite? Ask yourself how you will feel once you’ve finished your snack. If the first emotion that comes to mind is a negative one, then stop right there. You already know it’s an emotional eating choice and it isn’t too late to stop.
An excellent way to build a healthier relationship with food is to practice mindful eating. Sit down with your snack or meal and chew it slowly. Allow yourself the opportunity to smell, taste, experience, savor, listen, and enjoy the food you are eating. Take a pause before every bite. It’s as simple as that and slows you down as well, which ensures you don’t overeat.
Causes, Symptoms, & Signs You Are An Emotional Overeater
Now you have a clear picture of what emotional eating is and what it looks like, let’s address the symptoms, signs, causes, and triggers (ref.).
There are several factors that contribute to emotional eating so there isn’t a single cause and there are a variety of signs and symptoms as well. While women tend to be more likely to fall prey to emotional eating, it is something that men experience, too. While men are more likely to give in in response to feelings of anger and depression, women are more likely to give in to emotional eating in response to a failing diet.
Causes & Triggers
- Peer pressure
- Negative emotions
- Difficult events
- Stressful periods
- Stress in general
- Difficulty at work, school, or at home
- Exposure to abuse
- Exposure to trauma
- Exposure to crime
- Ill health, physically or mentally
- An emotional void
- A substitute for intimacy
Signs & Symptoms
- Feeling intense hunger suddenly
A pang of true physical hunger comes on gradually because it’s the result of an empty stomach. If you often feel an intense need to eat and it comes on suddenly, then it is likely an emotional need. Instead of reaching for snacks, grab a glass of water and find something to do.
- Reaching for junk
If you tend to grab ice cream, donuts, chips, or candy instead of making a balanced meal, then this indicates you’re feeding an emotional hunger versus physical hunger.
- Sweeping emotions
If your urge to eat comes on the tail of uncomfortable emotions, then it’s an emotional hunger.
- A lack of control
If you feel guilty after you eat or feel out of control while you eat, then these are both signs that it’s an emotional eating problem.
- You continue to eat even after you feel full.
- You continue to feel hungry even though you couldn’t possibly be.
- You’re not sure if you’re hungry, but you eat anyway.
- You often eat to the point of discomfort.
- Once you finish eating, you realize you don’t know how much you ate.
- Once you finish eating, you realize you don’t even know how it tasted.
- You feel embarrassment, shame, or guilt when you finish eating.
- You eat because you are tired, bored, excited, or lonely.
- Your hunger often accompanies unpleasant emotions like anxiety, hurt, anger. or fear. Emotional hunger isn’t related to your stomach, it starts in your mind.
- You crave specific foods and nothing else will do.
- You graze, snack, and continue to eat because nothing seems to hit the spot.
- When you feel stressed, you eat.
- When you’re busy you subconsciously reach for food.
- You often subconsciously reach for food when you’re bored.
- You eat as a reaction to emotions.
- Food provides you with solace.
- You struggle to lose weight.
- You know that you’re eating is out of control.
- If you want to feel happy, you eat.
- You eat because you feel happy.
- You love everything about food, you enjoy eating and when you’re not, you’re thinking about it. You love food and you crave it.
- When you talk about food you describe it using emotionally charged words like indulgent, sinful, tempting, or decadent.
- You experience cravings, you suddenly get an urge to eat a certain food and have no idea why. It happens when you’re not hungry and you can’t shake it until you feed the craving.
- Your eating habits change as a result of stress.
- You use food as a reward.
- You use food as a way to self-soothe.
What You Can Do
First of all, if you believe you have a serious emotional eating problem, then there are specialists who deal with eating problems. For children, a pediatrician is the first spot, from there any primary care physician can help direct you to the right person to speak to further.
You may be referred to a mental health professional, whether it’s a counselor or psychiatrist. You might work with one or a combination of medical professionals to address your problems. However, a diagnosis must be made first.
There are potential medical conditions, like Prader-Willi Syndrome (ref.), which causes constant hunger. So, it’s important to ensure that your problem isn’t related to a medical condition like this. Your doctor may carry out a mental health examination, which simply assesses your relationship with food. This will explore whether your issue is down to emotional eating or if there is an eating disorder at work, it will also determine whether you are dealing with mental illness.
Steps To Overcome Emotional Eating
If you want to overcome an emotional eating problem, there are several ways to do so, let’s talk about it.
1| The Way You Eat
Sometimes, the how is more important than the what when it comes to eating. The attitude you hold toward food, how you balance snacks and meals, the amount you eat, all of that plays a major role in emotional eating. Often, more so, than the specific food you eat.
If you take a look at your habits and patterns when it comes to eating, you can find self-help strategies that will help you avoid the snacking and emotional eating that gets you down. While a lot of emotional eating revolves around unhealthy food, some people do reach for healthy snacks and use that as an excuse to snack. So, don’t make your strategies all about saying no to unhealthy foods make it about saying no to food when you’re not hungry or when you recognize it’s an emotional urge.
2| Recognizing Addictive Behavior
A lot of time has been spent researching when food is addictive and if food is addictive is it the cause of emotional eating or overeating. There may be foods that create addictive behavior. However, that is not the cause of your emotional eating. Like any addiction, it often begins with an underlying emotional issue.
It’s important that you recognize that behavior in yourself. You need to recognize when you engage in that behavior, lose control, and find yourself preoccupied with doing it again. Pay attention to how it satisfies you temporarily and the negative consequences that come from it. Most importantly, take note of the trigger that led you to this behavior.
3| Learn The Difference Between Hunger & Emotional Cues
Earlier, we discussed the difference between emotional and physical hunger. An important part of combating emotional eating is learning to recognize the difference in these cues. One of the best ways to self-regulate this is by practicing mindful eating, using the hunger scale, and offering yourself small, healthy snacks to test your hunger.
4| Schedules Are Your Friend
With your snacks and meals scheduled, you can avoid overeating. We often run into trouble with emotional eating when we don’t follow any type of pattern or schedule in relation to eating. Generally, you should be having three meals with a couple of snacks thrown in there between meals. Hunger typically strikes around three hours after a meal. Use that information and your knowledge of self to create a schedule that works for you.
5| Change Your Pattern
Do you skip breakfast, eat lunch at your desk, and then eat dinner at 9 o’clock? Your eating patterns may be contributing to your emotional eating problem. Change it up.
6| Find Balance
Are you living a life that is meeting all of your needs? If you struggle with emotional eating, then the answer is no. There is obviously an underlying emotional, spiritual, or physical need that you are dealing with. When there is an imbalance within you, you are more likely to try to fill that void with food. So, take a look at your physical, emotional, and spiritual health and decide how you can make helpful changes to protect those areas of your life.
7| Build Healthy Behaviors
If you have grown accustomed to eating as a response to emotional stimulation, then you need to replace it with a healthier habit. To get started, create a list of hobbies or activities you enjoy that don’t involve food in any way. It could be reading, walking, exercising, visiting friends, video games, crafting, journaling, or playing cards. Absolutely anything. Ideally, it should be an activity that sucks you in so once you start the thought of food leaves your brain.
8| Build Support
Having a strong support network matters, especially if you live alone. Share your situation with a few of the people closest to you and ask if you can text them for a distraction when you feel a trigger to eat. Support, motivation, and encouragement are key.
9| Examine Yourself
The only way you will be successful in overcoming your emotional eating issue is you believe in yourself and you are motivated to do so. It’s not realistic to believe you can be happy all the time, nor can you always be perfect or successful. You are a human, you will make mistakes, and you will fail. You must allow yourself the space to do this and the time to grow from it. Learn your strengths and use them to bounce back when you run into obstacles. You’ve got this!
10| Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
We have to find healthier coping mechanisms and learn how to build a healthier relationship with food. This involves recognizing the triggers for emotional eating and finding other methods to deal with those triggers.
Exercise is an important tool, as is mediation. These are two of the biggest stress-busting weapons in your arsenal. If you often choose substances to deal with your emotions or triggers, then this can increase the likelihood of emotional eating. Your best bet to overcome the problem is to change your lifestyle to decrease your stress levels.
CBT is an excellent tool when it comes to managing stress and coping with the underlying emotions that may trigger eating. There is also DBT, (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) which can help with emotional eating for those who don’t find CBT helpful (ref.).
DBT focuses on behavioral patterns relating to self-harm or addictive behaviors, while CBT focuses on providing practical approaches to addressing harmful patterns, behavior, and thinking.
In terms of CBT, three techniques may be used to address emotional eating.
This phase of CBT sets the expectations for the upcoming therapy and promotes both positivity and cooperation from the patient for the treatment.
This is the stage where a person’s thoughts and assumptions are identified, the ones that influence behaviors and lead to emotional eating. Part of this stage involves mindfulness and nonjudgmental attention. This helps you become more aware of your emotions, therefore you become more in touch with what you are feeling versus when you are hungry.
This is the stage at which techniques for behavior modification are introduced. It’s when you create strategies to prevent emotional eating and deal with your problems effectively.
Support Yourself With Healthy Lifestyle Habits And Self Care
So far, you have a lot to work on and a lot to think about in relation to emotional eating. I encourage you to start your recovery today. You can start with acts of self-care and building healthy lifestyle habits. These are the areas of your life over which you have the greatest control and these changes in your life can help you get control over your emotional eating problem.
A Healthy Diet
When you eat healthier your body and mind feel better. When you feel better, it becomes easier to manage your emotions and avoid cravings. The first two weeks after you change your diet up may be a struggle, particularly with cravings, but once you get beyond that point you will notice a major difference. Choose plant-based foods, opt for whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
Hygiene matters – look after yourself by showering, washing your hair, brushing your teeth, and just looking after yourself. The better you look after yourself, the better you feel, and when you feel good you stand up straighter, you feel more confident, and you’re less likely to get down on yourself and give into underlying negative emotions.
Alcohol is a depressant and smoking increases stress levels. If you smoke, it’s time to quit. If you enjoy alcohol, ensure you follow the recommended allowance and don’t use it as a sleep aid or a way to calm your emotions.
Alcohol often kicks up intense emotions, it also leads to snacking, and with those two issues combined, you are creating a recipe for an emotional eating disaster. As you attempt to get your emotional eating under control, you may want to forego alcohol altogether.
The majority of us don’t get enough water, and often we snack because we’re convinced, we’re hungry when the reality is, we need a tall glass of water. Cut back on soda and juice and instead enjoy a nice glass of Adam’s Ale. You might want to get a filter, depending on the water quality where you live.
The average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep nightly. How much sleep do you get right now? You might not think it’s that big a deal, but if you consistently struggle to get enough sleep, then you are more likely to struggle with stress and emotional eating. The stress hormone cortisol runs rampant in your system after poor sleep and leaves you more likely to reach for sugary, fatty, foods that leave you in a vicious cycle. Look after yourself by allowing your body and mind to get a good night’s rest.
Speaking of the stress hormone cortisol, exercise is another excellent way to combat stress. Exercise boosts feel-good hormones and it improves confidence, too. Don’t overdo it as you get started, be gentle with yourself, and aim for an easy 20 to 30 minutes daily. You can increase the intensity of workouts and length of them as your body becomes more used to extra physical activity.
Be kind to yourself. If you slip up and give in to emotional eating, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t beat yourself up over it, that will only lead to more emotional eating. You can remind yourself of the mistake and you can commit to doing better moving forward. Don’t dwell on it.
One of the biggest acts of self-compassion is getting control over your negative self-talk. If you struggle with negative thoughts and you often insult yourself, take the time to correct it. Focus on your positive traits and praise them, find affirmations that build you up instead of tearing yourself down.
We’ve spoken at length about how stress impacts emotional eating. So, learning how to manage your stress is the single most important thing you can do to combat emotional eating. Stress doesn’t just increase the risk of emotional eating, it increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and a whole host of other physical health issues. Look into deep breathing, meditation, body scanning, etc.
You deserve to have fun, you deserve to relax, and you can take time out for yourself. Take a time out and fuel your creative side, indulge luxury, seek excitement, and do things you find fun and relaxing. It could be swimming, watching a football game, taking a nap, reading a great book, or even sitting back with a delicious cup of coffee in the bath. Whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about it!
Your friends and family will provide you with connection and emotional support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the people in your life and don’t be shy about building meaningful connections with new people. These are the people who will play an important role in your ability to overcome emotional eating.
Whether it’s meditation, prayer, nature, or song – you can fuel your spiritual side in any number of ways. Feed your spirit. We find it easy to focus on mental and physical health, but your spiritual side needs attention, too. That doesn’t mean you have to be a religious person or pursue an organized religion.
Resources To Get Help
If you believe that you, or someone you love, has an emotional eating problem, then I would encourage you to reach out for professional help. I have provided links below for a variety of help options, from more information to hotline numbers.
However, you may also want to consider reaching out to your primary care physician who can guide you further on what steps to take to overcome this issue in your life. You have to start somewhere and it starts right here.
- Harvard Medical School’s guide to nutrition and healthy eating. This is an excellent resource to get started and improve your eating habits. (ref.)
- The Mayo Clinic’s guide to healthy weight loss and getting control of emotional eating. ref.
- Harvard Medical School’s guidance on why stress leads to overeating. ref.
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