Emotional eating is the practice of eating when not hungry or eating based on or to enhance or soothe an emotion. It may involve binge-eating or grazing or eating for entertainment such as when bored, at a party, celebrating or stressed.
In This Article
I will share with you the: Top 7 triggers, 4 truths, examples of how to curb emotional eating, and techniques for controlling unconscious eating.
People eat for many emotional reasons: sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, boredom, happiness, or celebration.
Top 7 Emotional Eating Triggers
These questions will help you to learn more about your emotional eating triggers and plan alternative behaviors.
- Stress & Anxiety – When stress gets to you, do you soothe yourself with comfort food? Does a pint of ice cream quell those feelings?
- Loneliness – Does a Saturday afternoon home alone lead you to eating more than your share? Do you reach for the fridge when you feel a twinge of loneliness?
- Anger – Whether you’re angry at yourself, another person or a situation, do you stifle your feelings with food rather than confronting them and releasing them. It’s easier to smother a problem than to deal with it.
- Sadness, Depression & Hopelessness – When you have the blues, does it seem you can never feel full? Do you feel so bad that only binge eating reduces the sadness? Do you think: Nothing really matters anyway? Nothing’s ever going to change or get better for me. So, why should I care about my health or weight? Besides, eating makes me feel better.
- Lack of Control – Do you ever think: My life is out of control. There is nothing in it that I am in charge of. Everyone and everything around me rules my life. Except for eating! I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want it. So I will.
- Feeling Unappreciated – Perhaps you’ve accomplished something exceptional at work and no one has noticed. Or maybe you’ve made a personal achievement you’d dreamed of for years. But no one at home shares your pride. You find yourself tempted to congratulate yourself by “treating” yourself to something special. Cake, ice cream, chips – all of the above?
- Boredom – There’s nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Perhaps you feel lonely, too. There’s nothing at home to occupy your mind or your hours. But there is a pantry full of comfort food that will kill some of that empty time.
If you fit into any one of these profiles above, try sitting down with a piece of paper and brainstorming to find alternative behaviors to eating. Preferably something that involves your hands (that is not harmful to your health), such as knitting, drawing, writing, reading, walking, talking, etc.
You may be surprised at the solutions you come up with… and at just how well they work once you try them.
Then, write your ideas on note cards and post them where you will see them in your moments of need — how about on the refrigerator door,r next to the pantry, or on the dashboard of your car?
Accepting why you eat the way you do can be a big step towards breaking the cycle of eating for reasons other than nutritional value.
4 Truths About Emotional Eating
1) Why do people eat when they’re stressed?
It’s self-medication. Food alters our brain chemistry; carbs, for example, can temporarily boost production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain. Also, on a very basic level, most of us associate food with comfort – ever since mom soothed us with warm milk when we were babies or with a bowl of chicken soup when we were sick.
2) Why do some people binge on chips and French fries, while others binge on cookies and cake?
When you feel angry or frustrated most people like to eat something crunchy such as chips or crackers because chewing something hard and crunchy like this is a physical stress release of emotion.
A lonely mood, on the other hand, can make you crave foods that fill you up, like pasta – and can momentarily take away the empty feelings. Sweets like chocolate and ice cream is what most people turn to when they’re sad, because the sugar can ramp up your energy level and lift your mood.
3) How can I tell if my cravings are fueled by hunger or emotions?
In many cases it’s easy to mistake the reason behind your urge to eat. Try setting a kitchen timer for 6 minutes; if you still really want that snack after the alarm’s gone off, have it and savor each bite. This should be an adequate amount of time to pinpoint what you are truly feeling.
4) How can identifying my feelings help me avoid overeating?
If you can recognize what’s bothering you, then you can address the issue at hand without resorting to food. Try to find at least one activity that works as a stress outlet. When you’re feeling lonely, for example, get on the computer and send an e-mail to reach out to an old friend. Or if you’re angry, tear up a piece of paper to get that physical release you need instead of eating chips. Taking walks is a good option if you’re sad because it increases oxygen in the body which is a natural mood lifter.
How to Curb Emotional Eating
“I’ve read about trying to curb emotional eating, about how we are supposed to reflect on why we are eating. But if I am getting ready to dig into chocolate ice cream, thinking to myself, ‘Hey I’m eating this because I feel bad, not because I am hungry,’ is not quite enough to do the trick. The little devil on my shoulder says, ‘Yep, you are right — it’s been a crappy day, so eat.’ Any suggestions for battling this monster?”
1) Realize it’s a Major Change
Ever since mom gave us a cookie for being good, we’ve associated food with rewarding ourselves. It’s hard to change that mindset, but if you weigh that against a lifetime of being overweight, unhealthy and tired, the decision to change becomes easier. You may want to see a therapist who can help you to learn to nourish your soul rather than fill your stomach.
2) Find healthy Rewards
Try calling a friend, taking a walk, eating a piece of fruit or something healthy. Try talking back to the little voice and suggest alternatives, such as a hot bubble bath with candlelight, music, and a small glass of wine … reading … shopping (this could be dangerous) or doing something creative.
3) Drink Water
When I feel artificially hungry I make myself drink a large glass of water before I eat anything. Many times, after I drink the full glass, I end up not wanting to eat anything because the water has filled my stomach.
4) Brush Your Teeth
Sometimes a person wants to eat to change the taste in their mouth – onions, old food, etc.
5) Chew Gum
If you can’t brush, chewing sugar free gum can act to clean your mouth of the flavors of the food, especially mint. Also, a fruity flavored gum can take the place of a desert and satisfying the sweet flavor and the act of chewing.
6) Work out your worries
Exercise — like a kickboxing class or some type of a high-intensity aerobic class. This kind of class can clear your mind and help you forget about craving something.
Like I said earlier, tell yourself to wait a certain amount of time, 6 maybe 10 minutes before you can go get the chocolate bar. By the time you can officially have the candy, you may no longer crave it as madly and can either skip it or substitute something more healthy instead.
8) Keep it in perspective
As long as you are eating the good stuff daily, it really isn’t terrible if you eat the bad stuff once in a while. If you are eating it regularly because you are regularly having crappy days, you need to change your life, not your diet.
Read The Solution: 6 Winning Ways to Permanent Weight Loss by Laurel Mellin. It helps determine what to do with your feelings, a thing many people have not learned.
10) Write about it
Write it down (journal, scrap piece of paper). Talk with your urge. You will likely say many crazy things. But be candid. Don’t hold back. Let it go on and on. Ask questions. Most of the time you writing will just runs out of steam. But the point is to hear it and get it out. Allow your urges to be heard and understood.
11) Play a role
Just a silly little thing you can do, but added to some of the other techniques you may find it helps you. Pretend you are someone you admire — either fictional or real. How would they handle it? Would Scarlett O’Hara let herself pig out on ice cream.
12) Don’t panic
No food is illegal … what can be wrong with foods is eating when you do not need it. Remember that many grocery stores are open 24 hours a day. Food is prevalent. Ice cream will not become extinct. There is not likely going to be a time when you cannot get to it. It will still be there tomorrow and you can have some then. Try not to feed your soul with things that won’t satisfy it.
13) Have fun
Don’t forget to have fun. Being an adult doesn’t mean you have to be serious all the time. Go to a park and swing on the swings or go down the slide. Ride a bike, go skating. Whatever would be fun for you. Just go have fun. And just because you had a bad day at work doesn’t mean the rest of the day is shot. Tell yourself, I may have had a bad day up to this point, but I’m not going to let it ruin the rest of my day.
Controlling Unconscious Eating
Ever sit down in front of the TV with a family-size bag of chips, only to find it nearly empty by the time your show was over?
There’s a scientific reason for it. Normally, if you eat the same food for a period of time, your palate gets “tired.” You feel full sooner and don’t want as much. This is known as sensory-specific satiety. But get distracted — by reading, watching a movie, or playing games — and this appetite-control mechanism is repressed.
Your palate is primed for variety. Ever notice how there’s always room for dessert, even when you’re stuffed? The greater the variety of food, the more you’re likely to eat. The opposite is also true: Take away variety and you feel fuller sooner. It’s a trick you can use to your advantage. You’re less likely to overeat — and more likely to lose weight — if you eat the same thing for at least one of your meals, day in and day out. Aim for overall variety within a week-long period, not with each meal.
In a study, women who ate snack cakes while playing a video game wanted to eat more of the food — not less — compared to the women who ate without any distraction. The game players also had a greater desire to snack on other available munchies, and their desire to eat lingered after the study ended.
So do your best to not watch TV, spend time on the computer, read, or otherwise distract yourself when eating. You’ll be satisfied with less and feel fuller sooner. It is also a good opportunity to spend time with your family or friends. And focusing on eating might help prolong the time between meals.
- Chew each bite until it is a fine paste
- Sit up straight
- Focus on what you are doing – eating. Try no to drive, watch TV, read, etc. anything that takes your mind off of what you are doing – eating.
- Only drink water with a meal, and drink that in limited amounts.
- Avoid spices as they add variety and encourage eating more than necessary. Spicy foods also produce a desire for something sweet after the meal to counter the strong, lingering flavor.
- Stop eating when you are no longer hungry.