How to stop emotional eating
Are you an emotional eater?
- Do you eat to feel better or relieve stress?
- Do you eat because that bowl if ice cream is the highlight of your day?
- Do you eat when you’re happy to exaggerate that happy feeling?
- Do you eat when you’re sad or upset/angry to comfort yourself?
- Do you eat when you’re not physically hungry?
If you answered yes to any of the above then you’re most likely an emotional eater, welcome to the club!
I would say that 99% of humans are in the same club so it’s really nothing to worry about… that is unless it’s happening so often that it’s having a negative impact on your life.
There is a spectrum when it comes to emotional eating (like most things) and everyone will be somewhere on that spectrum. If you are considered a ‘normal eater’ you will most likely be at the bottom end of the spectrum. If you always turn to food and eat in large amounts, you will most likely be on the high end of the spectrum.
A lot of people (most of my clients and my past self) are both emotional eaters and binge eaters. Don’t worry, there is hope! Emotional eating is more complex than binge eating so I will dedicate this page to emotional eating and this page to binge eating.
Ok, then so emotional eating…we don’t always eat just to satisfy physical hunger. Many of us also turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or to reward ourselves. And when we do, we tend to reach for processed food, sweets, and other comforting but less nutritious foods. You might reach for 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, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. In fact, it usually makes you feel worse. Afterwards, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating because you view emotional eating as bad.
The emotional eating cycle
Using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—and you eat a lot of food during that time, you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the guilt you feel.
The typical cycle is shown below;
Something happens that upsets you or causes you to use food as an emotional pick me up or as an emotional enhancer.
You eat a lot of food when you know you’re not even hungry.
You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower.
I actually teach women how to let go of any guilt regardless of what they eat because bad feelings only make you comfort eat even more!
When we learn that emotional eating isn’t inherently bad and we can lose the guilt, we are then in a position to consciously choose to maybe try something different that will comfort us instead of food. Or as well as food.
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. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially 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 hunger apart.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves processed food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of crisps or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
If you only usually eat your favourite foods for pleasure (pleasure-seeking) then you may be a hedonic eater.
Common causes of emotional eating
Stress – Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
I teach my clients other ways of dealing with stress that works for them. Meditation is amazing to lower stress but if you don’t like meditation I see no point doing it! Let’s find something that works for you.
Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report from school, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mum.
Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to eating more than you know you want or need. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also eat more food than you need in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.
Food is your only pleasure – I’ve often asked people what they would have to feel if they did not eat emotionally, and the common answer is, “I would have nothing to look forward to.” And at the end of a long and hectic day, a big bowl of ice cream can be especially effective in temporarily soothing our exhausted, hard-working selves. Why? According to many sources, eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains. Opioids are the active ingredients in cocaine, heroin, and many other narcotics. So the calming, soothing effects you feel when you eat ice cream and chips are real. And breaking these habits can be like kicking a drug habit. Read more about hedonic eating.
What else lights you up that’s not food? What do you just love to do ?
Inability to tolerate difficult feelings – In our culture, we learn from a young age to avoid things that feel bad. Unfortunately, the ways we have found to distract ourselves from difficult feelings are not always in our best interests. Without the ability to tolerate experiencing life’s inevitable yucky feelings, you’re susceptible to emotional eating.
Body hate – It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true: Hating your body is one of the biggest factors in emotional eating. Negativity, shame, and hatred rarely inspire people to make long-lasting great changes, especially when it comes to our bodies or our sense of self. Many people tell me they will stop hating their body after they reach their goal weight. I say you have to stop hating your body before you can stop the emotional eating cycle.
What’s a girl to do?
The title to this blog is “How to stop emotional eating” which isn’t something you can do just like that. (But I worded it this way so you would be able to be able to find this page…so bite me!) In order to reduce emotional eating, you need to explore other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step.
It is helpful to have alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfilment. I will give some examples below but it is so important that you look within yourself and choose things that you will actually want to do!
I encourage my clients to find other activities that they might like to do to help them with their emotional discomfort, BUT I do not encourage them to look at these things as an alternative to or an ‘instead of‘ eating emotionally.
This is because of the guilt, shame and yucky feelings that come along if you don’t manage to not eat emotionally. (Chances are pretty high, hugh!)
Reverse psychology is one of the most powerful things on this planet. If we are constantly desperate to stop doing something (eating emotionally) it often leads us to actually doing that thing even more than if we took it with a pinch of salt (aka, accepted it and had no judgment towards it.)
Can you see how working with me is so different from anything you have most likely experienced before…?
But trust me on this, I have tried everything to stop emotional eating and my method is the only one that worked for me and continues to work for my clients.
So like I said, I will give you some options below to see if any resonate with you;
If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat, or look at a favourite photo or cherished memento.
If you’re anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favourite song, squeezing a stress ball, working out, or taking a brisk walk with your favourite podcast or audiobook.
If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, or hot chocolate whilst taking time to snuggle up with a blanket, take a bath, light some scented candles, sleep! – get in a power nap.
If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (drawing, playing the guitar, making something, scrapbooking, etc.).
If you’re celebrating or looking to upgrade that happiness, Go help someone else, give someone a compliment, buy the person next to you a drink in the coffee shop, bake some cookies for a loved one, put some music on and dance like a looney, write yourself a letter as to how proud you are of yourself (I’m being serious)!
Other helpful points…
Try to remain mindful of what and when you are eating. I know it can be tedious to focus completely on your eating, especially at first! Start slowly and avoid self-judgment as you try out a new way of being more present with your foods.
When you eat to feed your feelings, you tend to do so quickly, mindlessly consuming food on autopilot. You eat so fast you miss out on the different tastes and textures of your food—as well as your body’s cues that you’re full and no longer hungry.
But by slowing down and savoring every bite, you’ll not only enjoy your food more but you’ll also be less likely to eat more than you want to. Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating.
Try taking a few deep breaths before starting your food, putting your utensils down between bites, and really focusing on the experience of eating. Pay attention to the textures, shapes, colors and smells of your food.
How does each mouthful taste?
How does it make your body feel?
By slowing down in this way, you’ll find you appreciate each bite of food much more. You can even indulge in your favorite foods and feel full on much less. It takes time for the body’s fullness signal to reach your brain, so taking a few moments to consider how you feel after each bite—hungry or satiated—can help you avoid overeating.
Practice letting yourself experience difficult feelings. I know, much easier said than done! I know you don’t like feeling mad, sad, rejected, and bored. And people often ask me, “What’s the point in feeling mad? It doesn’t change anything.” Well, it may not change the source of your anger, but it will prevent you from having to blunt your feelings with behaviors you’d like to stop — like eating.
While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions.
It’s never about the food!
You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food. Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.
It’s also important to realise that using food is actually an attempt to take care of yourself.
To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating. I can help you do this.
If your poor body image and body hate is at the route of your emotional eating, then unfortunately, this one is multi-layered, complicated, and unique for each person. To truly make permanent progress in this area requires more than what is possible for me speak about in a blog post. Sorry, friends!
I am an expert in teaching women how to improve their body image. Something that took me longer than learning how to stop binge eating but it can be done! If I can do it, so can you!