Do you feel your feelings or feed your feelings? Learn more about emotional eating and how to break free from an unhealthy relationship between food and mood.
Sometimes we eat not only to satisfy our hunger but to comfort us when dealing with difficult emotions. This connection between mood and food is called emotional eating.
Left unchecked it can quickly become an unhealthy dependency. Because when that bag of chips or plate of fries inevitably fails to resolve tough emotions, this can trigger a cycle of guilt, more emotional eating, and unwanted weight gain as a result.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to break free from emotional eating and gain control over your eating habits. Learn more as we dive into exactly what emotional eating is, strategies you can use to overcome it, and when you should look for professional help.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is not about satisfying hunger. It’s about eating to forget, pacify, or overcome a particular emotion you’re experiencing. This could be exhaustion, boredom, anxiety, stress, sadness, anger, loneliness, depression, shame, or any other strong emotion you might be feeling.
Eating becomes a way to feel better when experiencing that emotion. So instead of feeling the feeling, you’re feeding the feeling.
We’ve all experienced emotional eating at some point in our lives. A tough breakup results in a pint of ice cream on the couch or boredom leads to mindlessly eating a full bag of chips. A little bit of emotional eating is normal. But it becomes harmful when emotional eating is your primary coping mechanism for dealing with strong emotions.
Why Does Eating Help Me Feel Better?
Eating results in a feeling of “fullness” which is a feeling you might be craving when sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, and so on. Reaching for food provides momentary comfort because it feels like you’re filling the emotional void you’re experiencing.
As you eat, your body is also undergoing a calming “rest and digest” response. This decreases your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, and calms your breathing. So for a moment, it feels like eating is making you feel better.
The Emotional Eating Cycle
This feeling is short-lived though because eating doesn’t do anything to resolve the feeling you’re experiencing. Instead, you end up feeling guilty for overeating. Then you emotionally eat to fill the void of that guilt and the cycle continues.
It’s easy to fall into this cycle of shame and self-loathing. The only way to stop it is to start addressing the emotion that caused the cycle to start in the first place.
Image source: HelpGuide
What Causes Emotional Eating?
Emotional Eating Triggers
Emotional eating is often brought on by emotions that we aren’t quite sure how to deal with such as:
- Shame, guilt, or trauma
- Anxiety or stress
- Loneliness or isolation
Facing these emotions head-on feels overwhelming, so you turn to food to help you manage. This can result in an unhealthy connection between emotions and eating habits.
Negative or Major Life Experiences
A big or tough experience like a breakup, a layoff, financial trouble, family issues, or a health problem can trigger emotional eating. It’s typically in these moments when you feel incredibly vulnerable or weak that you seek comfort or distraction from those emotions in the form of food.
If growing up you learned that food is a reward for good behavior or an appropriate solution for a bad day, it’s normal to bring those habits into adulthood.
You might also have nostalgia around certain foods that elicit happy memories. It could feel natural to reach for those foods when you want to bring back that happy memory during a difficult period of your life.
Your Brain’s Reward Center
Your brain also plays a role in emotional eating. High-fat and high-sugar foods trigger your brain’s reward center, or limbic system, like cocaine or alcohol.
The more you eat these foods, the more your brain craves them. This creates feelings of addiction and withdrawal, which emphasizes your brain’s perceived need for these foods during times of stress or high emotion.
Emotional Eating and Weight Gain
The foods we turn to for comfort during a tough time are not usually fruits and vegetables. “Comfort foods” are foods that tend to be high in calories, sugar, unhealthy fats, and simple carbs such as:
- Ice cream
- And so on!
If you’re unconsciously reaching for these types of foods several times a week, this can quickly result in unwanted weight gain. If you’re trying to lose weight, emotional eating has a way of wrecking all your efforts.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is harmful not just for the unwanted weight gain it can cause. It’s harmful because at the root of the problem is the false belief that you are unable to deal with this tough emotion or experience.
So, you turn to food as a distraction from those tough emotions you’re experiencing. But this is not a solution. So how do you stop it?
Until you believe yourself capable of overcoming hard things and start implementing healthier coping mechanisms, you’ll continue to fall into unhealthy eating patterns. You stop emotional eating by switching that impulse of opening up the pantry with a healthier alternative instead. And believing that you’re strong enough to make that switch!
It might not be easy at first, but you have what it takes to face whatever you’re experiencing! Here are some methods to help you get there:
Track Your Eating Habits With a Food Diary
To put a halt to emotional eating habits, you first need to understand exactly what those habits are. And the best way to do that is by getting a full picture of your eating patterns and behavior through a food diary or journal.
Every day write down:
- What and how much you’re eating
- When you’re eating
- How you feel before and after eating (and any events that led to those feelings)
- How hungry you feel before and after eating
Spend a few weeks tracking this and be as honest as possible. This gives you enough time to start to identify patterns between food and your mood. On days that you find yourself overeating, try and determine its trigger. Did something happen on that day? Were you in a bad mood? Did you have a stressful deadline at work?
Seeing how much you emotionally eat and discovering the reasons why could be enough to put a halt to the behavior. But at the root of the problem is an avoidance of the feeling that led you to emotionally eat in the first place. Facing that feeling could be the next step.
Acknowledge the Feeling
Take a few moments to name the feeling you’re feeling (without judgment!) and sit with it for a few minutes. Is it stress, anxiety, loneliness, anger? How are you feeling right now? Why are you feeling that way? Make sure to note all this in your food diary alongside what you’re eating.
While it might feel easier in the moment to avoid or numb the problem with food than face the emotion head-on, in the long run, this is actually a far more painful and difficult way of managing your feelings. By facing instead of avoiding what you’re feeling, you can start taking steps to address the root cause of the emotion instead of letting it fester and grow inside of you.
Find Healthier Ways to Manage Your Feelings
Use what you learn from your food diary to set up healthier alternatives to your emotional eating. If Mondays are tough days, set up a phone call every Monday evening with a good friend or family member to help calm your nerves or talk through the stress.
If family members are encouraging unhealthy eating behaviors, have a conversation with them about the changes you want to make in your diet and get them on board to help you. And so on! Knowing the cause can help you find the solution.
Here are other healthier alternatives to emotional eating that you can try:
- Sign up for a regular yoga or meditation class
- Start an exercise routine
- Dance to your favorite song
- Listen to music
- Schedule time to talk it through with a therapist
- Discover a new hobby
- Go for a walk
- Start a new podcast
- Call a friend
- Cuddle up with a good book
- Enjoy a bubble bath
- Spend some time outdoors
- Journal about what you’re feeling
- Take a nap
Learning how to swap emotional eating for a healthier alternative is not something you can do overnight. Try out different activities and be patient with yourself as you learn how to resist your food habits for new habits instead.
Identify Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
It’s also easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. Your desire for food can feel so strong that you assume you’re eating to feed your stomach when you’re really eating to feed your emotions.
Pause before you grab food to ask yourself: Am I actually hungry right now? Sometimes taking a few seconds to answer that question can help identify the difference.
But here are other signs that it might be emotional hunger instead of physical hunger:
- You’re craving junk food: If you’re feeling a hankering for ice cream or cookies, it’s most likely the need for comfort and not actual hunger that’s driving your cravings.
- Your hunger came on suddenly: Actual hunger comes on slowly while emotional hunger can come on in an instant. If you go from not hungry at all to suddenly ravenous and craving comfort food, it might not be physical hunger driving that impulse!
- You’re not satisfied after eating: If you finish eating and feel better, you were most likely hungry and needed food to get you back on track. If you finish eating and feel worse or the same, an emotion that isn’t hunger needs addressing.
- You just ate: If you ate not that long ago and you’re still craving food, it could be your emotions and not your stomach. Try and do something else instead of eating and if you still feel hungry after that activity, it might be physical hunger.
- You experienced an emotional trigger: Check in with yourself. Are you feeling stressed, anxious, sad, angry, or some other strong emotion? Could that emotion be the cause of your hunger?
- It’s mindless: If you’re not even aware that you’re eating as you’re eating, that could be a sign of emotional hunger. An example of this is eating because there is a bag of chips in front of you as you watch TV. Be mindful of these moments!
Take Time for Basic Self-Care
If your basic needs aren’t being met it’s going to be a lot harder to break a cycle of emotional eating. Your body and mind need exercise, sleep, and nutrition to feel healthy and happy.
Make sure you’re moving your body every day, consuming all the nutrients you need, and getting a full eight hours of sleep. When you aren’t getting enough of those things, it’s easier to open the fridge than face those difficult feelings.
Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is all about enjoying the entire experience of your food: the smell, the taste, the way you feel, and any thoughts that arise as you eat it.
By eating “mindfully”, you slow down and savor each bite of food and the overall experience of eating. This helps prevent mindless eating behaviors that often go hand-in-hand with emotional eating.
Here’s how you can practice mindful eating:
- Instead of diving into a plate of food, take some time to enjoy its smell and appearance first
- Put down your utensils between bites and focus on chewing and enjoying your food
- Don’t watch TV, work on your laptop, or perform any other activity as you’re eating
- Slow down each bite and pay attention to how the food tastes, the texture, and the smell
- Measure out portions of food and after you finish, take a few moments to consider if you’re still hungry
Mindful eating leads to fullness much faster than if you weren’t paying much attention. By doing this, you'll indulge in a bite of cake or a piece of chocolate rather than binge eating the entire cake or chocolate bar. This helps prevent overeating and any guilt as a result.
Remove Temptation by Stocking up on Healthy (And Delicious!) Food
It’s hard to reach for a pint of ice cream or a bag of cookies when there aren’t any cookies or ice cream to reach for. But this also doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of delicious-tasting foods!
Go to the grocery store (on a full stomach!) and load up on healthy and delicious food items that you’ll enjoy eating. Try out new foods you’ve never tried before and get into the habit of reaching for healthier alternatives at the grocery store instead of the sweets you’ll feel guilty for eating later.
And if your current pantry is packed with unhealthy foods, consider donating, trashing, or giving them away to remove the temptation.
Need some food inspiration? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- 7 High Fat Foods to Keep in Your Kitchen
- How to Easily Get in Your Daily Greens
- The Foods Our Dietitian Always Has in Her Fridge
- Healthy Hacks with Dietitian Becky
Stop the Cycle of Shame
The Emotional Eating Cycle stops when you decide to stop shaming yourself for behaviors that you’re turning to for comfort. As you start implementing these practices to put an end to your emotional eating habits you’ll have moments where you fall back into old behaviors.
Instead of feeling guilt or shame, practice forgiveness instead. You’re experiencing tough emotions that can often be uncomfortable or difficult to process. Thank yourself for working so hard to face those feelings and for the time you’re taking to focus on your health.
Remind yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes. That the decisions you make today don’t have to be the decisions you make tomorrow. Learn from the experience and start the next day on a new foot.
When Should You Seek Professional Help?
If you feel out of control with your emotional eating or you’ve tried several of the tactics above with little success, it might be time to check in with a therapist or join an emotional eating support group. You don’t need to go through this alone! A community or professional can help identify what’s causing your emotional eating and work with you on the best solutions to address it. They can also determine if your emotional eating is a diagnosable eating disorder and get you the help that you need.
Not sure where to turn? Schedule a visit with your doctor and ask them for resources or a referral to a professional who can help.
Binge Eating vs. Emotional Eating
Binge eating and emotional eating exist on the same spectrum. The difference between the two is your level of control over the situation. Binge eating is a diagnosable eating disorder characterized by a lack of control over your emotional eating and higher than usual levels of shame and guilt as a result of your eating behavior.
If you’re at all concerned that you might be falling into a pattern of binge eating, you can take this self-scoring and confidential Binge Eating Scale questionnaire. But no matter where you are on the emotional eating spectrum, there’s no shame in seeking professional help.
Emotional Eating Support Groups
A healthy support network can help you feel less alone and offer guidance as you take steps to address your emotional eating or binge eating disorder. Here are some great support groups you can join:
- Overeaters Anonymous: https://oa.org/
- The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
- BALANCE eating disorder treatment center: https://balancedtx.com/
- Anti Loneliness Emotional Eating Support group: https://www.antiloneliness.com/emotional-eating-support-group.html
- Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA): https://www.medainc.org/
- Find other emotional eating groups on Meetup: https://www.meetup.com/topics/emotional-eating/
Not sure if you’re struggling with emotional eating? Take the Overeaters Anonymous quiz online for a confidential self-assessment or talk with your doctor today. You can also join our 310 Community or head to our 310 Blog for guidance, encouragement, and support on emotional eating and other healthy eating topics.