Emotional eating is a complex topic. Often going unseen, emotional eating can have significant consequences on both your physical and emotional health. The first step to overcoming it is to recognize the root causes of emotional eating. This article explores what emotional eating is, its underlying causes, and six practical strategies to help you overcome it.
Emotional eating is eating in response to stress or intense emotions rather than physical hunger cues. It’s estimated to affect 35–40% of American adults.
At its root, emotional eating is an old coping mechanism (often from infancy/childhood) used to quell stress and negative emotions.
The good news is that you can always replace this old way of coping with newer, healthier coping mechanisms that protect your physical and emotional health.
If you suffer from emotional eating and want to work on changing the habit, seek the care of a medical and/or psychological professional to get the support you deserve to overcome it.
When you eat in response to stress or heightened emotions, this is called emotional eating. Everyone takes part in this sometimes, but when it happens frequently enough to cause physical and emotional problems, you might benefit from taking a deeper look into why you use food to cope.
Although emotional eating can offer temporary emotional relief or distraction, a long-term habit can lead to negative consequences like emotional repression, weight gain, obesity, insomnia, lethargy, food addiction, guilt/shame, and moodiness. All of these issues are potential risk factors for things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.
How do you know if you are emotionally eating?
How can you tell if you’re actually hungry or if you are reaching for emotional comfort? Here is a chart to show you the difference between emotional eating and physical hunger:
|Emotional eating:||Physical hunger:|
|Sudden onset||Develops over time|
|Does not notice fullness or is full but continues to eat anyway||Feels fullness cues and stops eating|
|Triggered by the need for comfort, soothing, or distraction||Based on the last time you ate|
|Physical cues are absent||Physical cues like a growling stomach or lower energy signal hunger|
When emotional eating happens regularly, and you don’t have other positive ways to cope, it can become a problem.
Understanding the causes
It’s estimated that about 40% of American adults emotionally eat. Using food as a coping mechanism for stress can start as early as infancy. Babies cry to show signs of distress, which is usually met with food and comfort (being held or soothed, for example). When this old coping mechanism (food equals comfort) isn’t replaced by new coping mechanisms as we get older (like exercise, journaling, or creative hobbies), this strong association between food and emotional comfort can carry over into adulthood, leading to a pattern of emotional eating.
In addition to a potential childhood tie between food and comfort, you release dopamine when you eat, which is the reward and feel-good chemical. Dopamine combats cortisol, the stress hormone, and can be produced by many things (exercise, sunlight, laughing, creativity, etc.), but emotional eaters derive it from food.
Several factors contribute to the development and persistence of emotional eating:
Stress is probably the most common trigger for emotional eating. When you experience stress, your body produces the stress hormone, cortisol. High cortisol levels can cause you to crave high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sugar foods. These foods trigger the release of dopamine, the reward hormone, in an effort to alleviate the cortisol stress spike. This happens sporadically for everyone, however, if food is the main way you regularly de-stress, this is emotional eating.
When you experience negative emotions and resist allowing yourself to feel them, it’s common to use food to cope, distract, or avoid. Emotional eaters often turn to food as a way to soothe feelings like sadness, anger, or loneliness. Because food offers a sense of pleasure and distraction, it is readily available to avoid negative emotions.
Routines and social anchors
Certain experiences, routines, or social situations can trigger emotional eating (when something is “anchored” to food, it means they are associated in your mind). For example, driving home from work passing your favorite fast food place can be a routine that triggers emotional eating. Also, family gatherings or holidays can lead to indulgent eating without genuine hunger cues (your mind anchors gatherings to food). Pay attention to your routines and social anchors to see if these are triggers for your emotional eating.
Lack of awareness
Emotional eating is an automatic response and requires awareness to overcome. If you’re on autopilot throughout the day, change can’t happen. Change requires attention and intention to happen. Awareness is always the first step to change.
Emotional eaters often lack introspective awareness (realizing how you feel), may have alexithymia (lack of ability to understand, process, or describe emotions), or may deal with emotion dysregulation (inability to manage emotions). Awareness and knowing yourself (how you feel, what you need, how to process, etc.) can take time to develop, and that’s ok! The most important part is the first step.
At its root, emotional eating is an old coping mechanism that hasn’t evolved into higher-level coping mechanisms. As an infant, this coping mechanism makes sense because we don’t have independence, self-control, or self-awareness. As adults, we have all of these things, which means we have the ability to develop better, more appropriate, coping mechanisms like exercise, journaling, counseling, or spending time in nature.
We all need ways to cope with stress and process strong emotions. You get to decide if your coping mechanisms support health or deteriorate it.
6 strategies to overcome emotional eating
Overcoming emotional eating is different for everyone. It can be challenging because it requires you to face some uncomfortable feelings you may be avoiding. It also requires you to develop new coping mechanisms to replace your reliance on food, and change can be hard. Although it’s initially uncomfortable, the long-term benefits far outweigh the initial discomfort.
The goal is to learn to make conscious decisions about what, when, and how you eat. Sometimes, emotional eating happens, and that’s okay. For other times, there are better ways to cope.
Here are six practical things you can do to break free from the cycle of emotional eating:
- Mindful eating. The best place to start is mindfulness and checking in with yourself so you know what you’re feeling. Practice mindful eating by paying full attention to the food you consume. Limit distractions and work to savor the flavors, textures, and smells of your meals. Eating mindfully helps you become more attuned to your body's hunger and fullness cues, reducing the likelihood of emotional eating.
- Identify triggers. Keep a journal to track your emotions, situations, and events that lead to emotional eating. Is it a specific situation or environment, a particular relationship, or a past wound that heightens your emotions and motivates emotional eating? What are you seeking comfort from? Identifying your triggers can help you anticipate and manage emotional eating episodes.
- Seek support. Share your struggles with someone you trust or seek the help of a therapist. Emotional eating often thrives in secrecy, and discussing your challenges with someone can provide emotional support and accountability.
- Develop healthy coping mechanisms. Find alternative ways to cope with emotional distress. Once you understand your triggers and become more self-aware of what you’re feeling, you can begin to replace food with something more beneficial. You can try activities like exercise, meditation, journaling, or creative pursuits to manage your emotions without turning to food. These have all been shown to release feel-good chemicals that last much longer and have better long-term benefits compared to food.
- Create a healthy environment. Remove or limit access to unhealthy trigger foods in your environment. If it’s not in the house, you’re less likely to eat it. Stock your kitchen with nutritious options, making it easier to make mindful choices when emotional cravings strike.
- Accept and be curious. If you do find yourself emotionally eating, instead of criticizing yourself with something like “I failed again, I can never change, I’m a terrible person,” try a curious and accepting approach like “Everyone makes mistakes, I am a work in progress and that’s ok. I wonder what triggered me. How am I feeling? What could I have done differently for next time?” Curiosity and acceptance are acts of self-love and will get you a step closer to learning better emotional regulation.
Emotional eating is a prevalent issue that can negatively impact physical health, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life. By implementing mindful eating practices, identifying triggers, seeking support, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and creating a nurturing environment (both internally with your thoughts and externally with your surroundings), you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating and lead a healthier, happier life. You are worth it!
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- American Psychology Association. Stress and Eating.
- Journal of Eating Disorders. Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns.
- Current Diabetes Reports. Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity.
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- PLOS One. Sadness regulation strategies and measurement: A scoping review.