What exactly is emotional eating? How does it impact our health?
Emotional eating is natural. We don’t always eat to satisfy physical hunger; many also turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or reward. And when we do, we tend to reach for junk food, sweets, and other comforting but unhealthy foods. You might get a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, order a pizza if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—to fill emotional needs rather than your stomach. Unfortunately, eating doesn’t fix emotional problems and usually makes you feel worse. Afterward, the original emotional issue remains, and you also feel guilty for overeating.
Are you an emotional eater?
Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
Also, do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
Typically, do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
Have you rewarded yourself with food lately?
Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
Are you powerless or out of control around food?
The emotional eating cycle
Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, reward, or celebration isn’t necessarily bad. However, do not use food to satisfy emotional hunger. When this happens, you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem when you consume food emotionally.
Food does not satisfy emotional hunger. Eating may feel good at the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve consumed. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower.
Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, have more difficulty controlling your weight, and feel increasingly powerless over food and your feelings. But no matter how helpless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and finally stop emotional eating.
The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger
Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. It can be trickier than it sounds, primarily if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional needs apart.
Common traits of emotional hunger
This type of hunger comes on suddenly, hits you instantly, and feels overwhelming and urgent. On the other hand, the physical need comes on more gradually, and the urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a long time).
Also, emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
It often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or thoroughly enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of your actions.
Eating for emotional hunger means you are not satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. On the other hand, physical hunger doesn’t require being overfed, and you feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
This form of hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your urge as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Lastly, emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. Eating to satisfy physical hunger makes you unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you give your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after eating, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
How to stop emotional eating?
Emotional hunger isn’t quickly quelled by eating.
While filling up my work at the moment, eating because of negative emotions often leaves people feeling more upset than before. This cycle typically doesn’t end until a person addresses emotional needs head-on.
Find other ways to cope with stress
Discovering another way to deal with negative emotions is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating. It could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day.
It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with various activities to find what works for you.
Move your body
Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. Walking or jogging around the block or a quickie yoga routine may help in particularly emotional moments.
Participants in the study engaged in eight weeks of yoga in one study. They were then assessed on their mindfulness and insightful understanding — basically, their knowledge of themselves and the situations surrounding them.
The results showed that regular yoga might be a useful preventative measure to help diffuse emotional states such as anxiety and depression.
Others are calmed by turning inward to practices like meditation.
There are a variety of studies that support mindfulness meditation as a treatment for binge eating disorders and emotional eating.
Simple deep breathing is a meditation that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils.
You can browse sites like YouTube for free guided meditations. For example, Jason Stephenson’s “Guided Meditation for Anxiety & Stress “has over 4 million views and goes through a series of visualization and breathing exercises for more than 30 minutes.
Start a food diary
Keeping a log of what you eat and when you may help identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. You can jot down notes in a notebook or turn to technology with an app like MyFitnessPal.
While it can be challenging, try to include everything you eat — however big or small — and record the emotions you’re feeling at that moment.
Also, if you seek medical help regarding your eating habits, your food diary can be a valuable tool to share with your doctor.
Eat a healthy diet
Making sure you get enough nutrients to fuel your body is also vital. It can be challenging to distinguish between true and emotional hunger, and eating well throughout the day may be easier to spot when you’re eating out of boredom, sadness, or stress.
Are you still having trouble? Try reaching for healthy snacks, like fresh fruit or vegetables, plain popcorn, and other low-fat, low-calorie foods.
Take common offenders out of your pantry
Consider trashing or donating foods in your cupboards that you often reach for in moments of strife. Think high-fat, sweet, or calorie-laden things, like chips, chocolate, and ice cream. Also, postpone trips to the grocery store when you’re feeling upset.
Keeping foods you crave out of reach when feeling emotional may help break the cycle by giving you time to think before noshing.
Pay attention to volume
Resist grabbing a whole bag of chips when snacking. Measuring out portions and choosing small plates to help with portion control are mindful eating habits to work on developing.
Once you’ve finished one help, give yourself time before returning for a second. You may even want to try another stress-relieving technique, like deep breathing, in the meantime.
Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. Even a quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help.
Overeaters Anonymous is an organization that addresses overeating from emotional eating, compulsive overeating, and other eating disorders.
Your doctor may refer you to a counselor or coach who can help you identify the emotions at the route of your hunger. Find other groups in your area by searching on social sites like Meetup.
You may eat in front of the television, computer, or other distractions. Try switching off the tube or putting down your phone the next time you find yourself in this pattern.
Focusing on your food, the bites you take, and your hunger level, you may discover that you’re eating emotionally. Some even find it helpful to focus on chewing 10 to 30 times before swallowing a bite of food.
Doing these things gives your mind time to catch up to your stomach.
Work on positive self-talk
Feelings of shame and guilt are associated with emotional eating. It’s essential to work on the self-talk you experience after an episode — or it may lead to a cycle of dynamic eating behavior.
Instead of coming down hard, try learning from your setback. Use it as an opportunity to plan for the future. And be sure to reward yourself with self-care measures — taking a bath, going for a leisurely walk, and so on — when you make strides.
When to see your doctor
It’s hard work, but try looking at your emotional eating as an opportunity to get more in touch with yourself and your feelings.
Taking the process one day at a time will eventually lead to a better understanding of yourself and developing more healthy eating habits.
Emotional eating may lead to binge eating disorders or other eating disorders if left unaddressed.
It’s essential to see your doctor if you feel you’re eating patterns are out of your control. Your doctor may refer you to a counselor or dietitian to help address the mental and physical aspects of emotional eating.
Food may help ease emotions initially, but addressing the feelings behind hunger is vital in the long term. Work to find alternative ways to deal with stress, like exercise and peer support, and try practicing mindful eating habits. Look at the way you eat. How you eat can be more important than what you eat. The total amount of food you eat, your attitude toward food, how you balance your meals and snacks, and your eating habits can play a much more significant role in emotional overeating than the specific foods you choose to eat.
Take time to analyze your eating patterns, learn more about normal eating vs. emotional overeating, and develop new self-help strategies to address your emotional and physical relationships with food. Practice saying “no” to unhealthy foods and emotionally-charged situations that sabotage your efforts to develop better-eating habits.
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