Updated: Feb 11
Ah, emotional eating! The bane of so many of us.
Let’s start off with a definition. The simplest way to define emotional eating is “eating to feel good”. We are emotional creatures, and when powerful emotions come up and we quench them with food we are emotional eaters.
I want to point out that emotional eating can happen with positive AND negative emotions. I say this because many people associate emotional eating purely with negative emotions like anger, depression and loneliness. Truthfully it’s just as easy to emotionally eat with positive emotions like joy, happiness and excitement. (Later we’ll define more emotions and how they are expressed with emotional eating, then go through how we can replace emotional eating with intentional eating.)
Of course, emotional eating is unhealthy because we end up eating too much, and it’s almost always with junk food, food that lacks nutrition but loads up on calories.
The solution to emotional eating is emotional regulation. By learning to regulate our emotions we will be able to curb emotional eating. We can learn to regulate our emotions with things like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness, good sleep habits, breathing, and emotional check ins.
Let’s take a deeper dive.
Physical Hunger versus Emotional Hunger
It’s helpful to differentiate physical hunger and emotional hunger here. Physical hunger happens when your body truly (physiologically) needs nutrients. It comes on gradually as we use up our energy stores. With physical hunger, we have time to mindfully choose nutrient dense foods, and these appear just as appealing to us as do faster, less nutritious foods. Also with physical hunger we tend to be satisfied when we’re full and therefore stop eating.
With emotional hunger, on the other hand, we have a sudden, uncontrollable desire to grab the closest food. We tend to eat mindlessly, usually grabbing high sugar, high fat, low nutrient foods like chips, donuts or a burger and fries. (If reading this is giving you the urge to run out for a burger then you’re experiencing emotional hunger. Stop and read on to stave off the urge.) Then we gulf it down like it’s the last morsel of food on the planet and we have to get it in our bodies before the someone else grabs it. With emotional hunger, we always want more. Usually we end up feeling guilty, shameful, and powerless.
Gradual onset of hunger
Sudden, overwhelming urge to eat
Stomach may start to growl
Your stomach is quiet
It’s been a while since your last meal (usually 2-4 hours)
Occurs regardless of how much time has passed since your last meal
Any foods look good
You usually have specific cravings (ice cream, French fries, etc)
Food is satisfying/you stop when you’re full
You always want more
Mindless (distracted eating)
Is emotional eating a problem?
Emotional eating is a problem when it’s your primary coping mechanism or when you’re avoiding addressing the underlying problem. The best course of action is to address the underlying feelings you’re having. For instance, if you’re depressed, it’s important to treat the underlying depression rather than down a pint of ice cream.
Ok, so we know that emotional eating is “eating to make us feel good”. Let’s break that down.
When we feel stressed, our bodies increase our cortisol levels. This prompts us to seek pleasure or comfort. With emotional eating we tend to seek instant-energy producing foods that taste great, so most of us reach for the nearest sweet, salty, or fried food (or all of them at once, think fried twinkies).
With negative emotional eating our primary goal is Emotional Avoidance, or numbing ourselves with food. This is usually associated with emotions such as
Positive emotional eating occurs around good memories. Here we eat because we’re associating food with happiness, comfort, or pleasure. Examples of positive emotional eating include:
Being rewarded for good behavior or certain achievements as a child is another form of positive emotional eating. Over time we learn that food is a reward for good behavior.
Social gatherings can be ground zero for emotional eating. In many cultures a primary way to celebrate is to go our for dinner or bring in pastries. At picnics or company parties there’s a huge abundance of food. In these situations there may be social pressure to eat, and it can be intimidating to stick to our boundaries and only eat what we want and when we want to eat.
Ok, so I’ve identified myself as an emotional eater. Now what? The short answer to solving emotional eating is self-care. When we’re in a healthy place we’re less likely to eat the wrong foods or too many foods. We can help prevent emotional eating ahead of time by:
Getting plenty of sleep
Eating nutrient dense foods at mealtimes
Carrying healthy snacks with us
Spending quality time with positive people.
Getting enough exercise/movement
Other ways to avoid emotional eating:
A nature walk (or any movement)
Warm bath or shower
Humming or singing
Talking to a friend
Talking to a therapist
Clean/declutter your house/office/calendar
Play an instrument or listen to music
It's also important to practice a healthy use of boundaries. Knowing and honoring your boundaries will help in social situations when others are trying to pressure you into eating or drinking the kinds of foods that you want to avoid. When going into a social situation have a plan on what you’re going to eat and how much. If people challenge you then politely decline. Hold true to your boundaries. Once you start respecting your own boundaries others will too.
An important component of self-care is acknowledging your feelings. Be in touch with yourself so that you know when you’re sad or angry or happy or frustrated. All of us feel this way at times in our lives. Acknowledge when you’re sad or upset and allow yourself to feel it for a few minutes. Then, instead of driving to the drive-thru, pull out your journal and write about it. Or call a friend and talk. Studies have shown that getting in touch with your feelings and handling them well can actually improve certain types of depression and obesity.
Another important step in slowing or stopping emotional eating is to be able to identify and take action on our “triggers”, or situations that lead to emotional eating. Triggers can be anything:
People. Someone you feel stressed by. Being judged or teased. Family friction.
Places. An amusement park, grandmas house.
Situations. A work party or a birthday party. An anniversary, especially of a loss. Holidays.
Music – remembering a song that you associate with picnics or a sad song that depresses you.
Smells – The grill, or roasted nuts in the city.
Sights - Watching a cooking show, seeing donuts in the break room.
For instance, if you know that you tend to be stressed after talking to your ex on the phone, take action ahead of time so that you can make good choices after the call. You might take the call while you’re on a nature hike, or plan to go to the spa after the call. Anything that you can do to lift yourself up after a stressful call other than eat.
When you have a good idea of what your triggers are, then you can practice stress management around them. A great activity to do is to make a list of your triggers, and a list of self-care practices you like, then start building up your tolerance to the triggers by incorporating as much self-care as possible into your routine.
It’s important to be kind to yourself and give yourself time to address these things. In the beginning understand that you’ll fail a lot. With practice, however, these things will become second nature. For instance, if you are generally triggered 10 times a week, and the first week you are able to reduce the triggers by 1, that’s a win. Keep trying and over the next few weeks the triggers will reduce to 5. Over a period of time you’ll be and expert and will have a good handle on your triggers and be able to handle them with the new techniques you’re developing.
A short note on meditation. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated and you don’t have to get caught up in semantics. Meditation just means to sit quietly and notice your thoughts. Let them flow naturally and try not to get caught up in them. I like to sit in a peaceful place, or make myself as comfortable as possible, then close my eyes and just relax. For me it’s a spiritual letting go, allowing energy to just flow through me.
Here are some trigger specific solutions that you can start using today:
Depressed or Lonely
Call a supportive, positive friend
Take a nature walk
Volunteer to help someone
Play with a dog or cat.
Positive self-talk (make this a habit as soon as possible).
See a talk therapist
If the depression is severe, seek help from your doctor as soon as possible
Count to 10. The breathing should be deep and slow. Try taking in a slow breath counting to 3, hold it for 3 seconds, then breath out for 5 seconds. This slows your body down, putting you into a relaxed state, and allowing your brain to make better choices.
Notice 1 thing from each sense – name 1 thing you can see, one you can hear, one you can smell, one you can feel, and 1 you can taste.
Take a nap
Breathe deeply (3-3-5 method)
Turn off your devices and rest. Continuing to watch or play on electronics will only worsen the problem.
See a comedy show
Just sit quietly and breathe.
In summary, emotional eating is when we use food to avoid dealing with our emotions. We can break this cycle by getting in touch with our emotions and regulating them by practicing self-care on a daily basis.
Thank you for reading this article. I hope it helps you on your journey to an enjoyable life. If you or someone you know would like to work with me as a coach to help you develop healthier habits, contact me at InfuseYourFuture.com/contact and we’ll start a conversation.
In the meantime, below are some links to products I feel are helpful.
Finally, here’s my call to action today. Leave a comment about how you recognized a trigger and how you addressed it with a positive solution.