“A way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness, or the act of eating in response to an emotional trigger.”
We eat for reasons more than just to satisfy our hunger.
We may turn to food to relieve stress or cope with negative emotions. After eating, we feel worse – the original emotional issue is still there and now we feel guilty for overeating.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating (or stress eating) is turning to food for comfort – to make yourself feel better, not because you’re hungry. This is considered a maladaptive coping mechanism. It is not a matter of discipline. Simply telling yourself that you will “do better next time” or that you’ll never do it again usually does not work to correct the problem behavior.
Emotional hunger cannot be satisfied with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, as a distraction from the issues at hand, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.
While emotional eating is not a type of eating disorder, it is a common trait among those who have eating disorders.
Major life events, or chronic daily stressors such as relationship issues, work stress, fatigue, financial issues, or health problems, can all trigger negative emotions that may lead to emotional eating.
Emotional eating is compulsive and the eater may feel unable to control it.
Some degree of emotional eating is normal. Food is typically part of celebrations – like weddings, birthdays, and holidays. Emotional eating is only a problem when it becomes someone’s primary tactic for managing their mood. Emotional eating exists along a continuum – if it is not stopped it can lead to eating disorders like binge-eating disorder (BED), which is the most common eating disorder and affects approximately 2 million Americans.
Are You An Emotional Eater?
- Do I eat more when I feel stressed?
- Do I eat when I’m not hungry or when I’m already full?
- Do I eat to feel better when I am sad, angry, bored, or nervous?
- Do I reward myself with food? (“Treat yo’ self”)
- Do I regularly eat past the point of feeling full?
- Does food make me feel safe?
- Do I feel out of control around food?
If you caught yourself shaking your head “yes” to any or all of these questions, you may be using eating as a response to some kind of strong emotions in your life.
Is Overeating the Only Type of Emotional Eating?
Some people eat less when they are under emotional distress. Some people binge eat. Whatever the person repeatedly does becomes a learned habit – an automatic reach for something salty or sweet whenever feelings of anger, stress, or sadness are stirred up.
Whatever the reasons driving the urge to overeat, the end result is the same: the emotions return with the additional guilt that many feel about overeating – this can lead to an unhealthy cycle:
emotions → overeating → guilt →
more emotions → more overeating → more guilt
Typically, the foods that are targeted are hyperpalatable (e.g. high-fat, high-sugar) which may have more addictive qualities than, say, plain boiled chicken or steamed broccoli. However, emotional eating can involve any kind of food – the type of food chosen does not define the act.
There seems to be a clear and fairly consistent connection between negative emotions and less healthy foods, it’s less clear what foods we are drawn to when in a positive mood (yes, there are studies that show positive moods also play a role in what we choose to eat).
Stress is an important factor in the development of addiction and in relapse back in to addiction, and may also contribute to an increased risk of chronic disease like obesity and other metabolic diseases.
Uncontrollable stress changes eating patterns and the consumption of hyperpalatable foods which, over time, can lead to neurobiological adaptations in the brain that promote increasingly compulsive behavior – this sure sounds like the definition of a “habit” to me!
The Cycle of Self-Hatred
As counterintuitive as it may seem, hating your body is a big factor in emotional eating. Have you ever heard someone say that they would love themselves or stop hating their body after they reached a certain goal weight?
How many of those same people were happy when they lost the weight? If you weren’t happy before, you aren’t going to be happy after.
If emotional eating is preventing you from reaching your health goals, you need to address the issue of self-hatred FIRST, before you can stop the emotional eating cycle mentioned above.
Unfortunately, this is not an easy step to take and usually made of a lot of interweaving layers. The work you put in will be worth it, however, so that you can reach a state of food freedom and self-acceptance.
“Food freedom is feeling in control of the food that you eat, instead of food controlling you.”
Having trouble losing weight? Emotional eating could be making it difficult. Were you successful in losing weight? Emotional eating could also make you more likely to gain the weight back.
Diets fail because they are logical nutrition advice and guidance which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. Emotional eating is compulsive, not a conscious decision.
Emotional vs. Physical Hunger
Tips to Help Overcome Emotional Eating
- Keep a journal. Write down what you eat, how much, when you ate, your mood, your hunger level, your location. You might see some patterns emerge between your moods and food.
- Get support. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a virtual or in-person support group.
- Relax. Go for a walk, meditate, practice some yoga poses, take a bubble bath, cozy up with a book and a cup of tea, dance around your bedroom, watch a comedy special on Netflix.
- Check your hunger. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?”. Discern between emotional hunger and physical hunger by looking at the signs – Is your stomach growling? Are you craving particular foods? Honor hunger, give cravings time to pass. Don’t let yourself get too hungry as this may leave yourself vulnerable to overeating or emotional eating.
- Remove temptation. Just because it isn’t about willpower or discipline does not mean that you need to have your biggest tempters in your face as you work towards developing more healthful coping mechanisms.
- Don’t restrict yourself. On the same note as the point above, don’t ban certain foods or label them “good” or “bad”. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods and enjoy occasional treats. Work towards removing the stigma you attach to certain foods for whatever reason (e.g. fat is bad, fruit is bad, sugar is bad).
- Forgive yourself. You are probably going to fall back in to old behaviors at some point along your journey. If it happens, accept that it happened, forgive yourself, and then move on with your day. Try to learn from the experience so that you can plan for how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
- Practice mindful eating. Observe your body. Savor your food. Be fully present. Increase awareness. Be nonjudgmental about your food choices and your body.
When to Seek Help
If you’ve tried self-help options like the generic advice offered here but still feel out of control with emotional eating, consider therapy with a credentialed mental health professional. Therapy can help you understand why you are eating emotionally and learn other coping skills.