Understanding and Addressing Emotional Eating

Kara Bauer Health Guide
  • Emotional eating is a bit different than food addiction. Where food addiction can be caused by biological responses linked to either addictive food chemicals or excessive sugar, salt and fat intake, emotional eating relates to feelings and using food as a comfort tool. Eating in this way often leads to physical discomfort, weight gain and guilt. In order to overcome emotional eating, one has to bring awareness to the situation and then take active steps to overcome it. Like other emotional and psychological problems, this can take time, especially if it’s a learned behavior that began in childhood. The first step to changing negative habits is to recognize that it is happening by having a clear understanding of what emotional eating is, how it differs from normal hunger, what the triggers are, and practices that can support you to overcome its power over you.

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    When we eat for emotional reasons, it is often due to stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, loneliness, fatigue and even happiness in some cases. Triggers may include problems related to finances, health, relationships or work. Most likely all of us have experienced emotional eating at one moment or another. The issue arises when it becomes a regular behavior to the point that food becomes automatically associated with certain emotions. This can lead to a harmful cycle of overeating, followed by guilt, followed by a repeat of the same behavior in response to the guilt. Unfortunately, this is an ineffective way of numbing the impact of emotions and one that leads to additional, more difficult problems to manage.


    Typically the foods we find comfort in are also detrimental for our health. Sometimes this is a learned behavior from childhood in which we associate certain foods with rewards, memories or particular situations. One study found that the most common comfort foods varied by mood.[1] For example when we’re happy, we usually crave pizza or steak. When we’re sad, we reach for ice cream or cookies. And boredom usually leads to salty snacks and potato chips. Regardless of the mood, comfort foods are rarely healthy, which leads to the consumption of extra calories and sugar. Typically this first causes weight gain (excess sugar and carbohydrates get stored as fat) and then can later develop into a host of other health problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and more. Self-esteem is greatly impacted and in some cases eating disorders may arise.


    If you are unsure if you are an emotional eater, consider the following. Emotional eaters generally have a sudden craving for a specific food that needs to be satisfied immediately. They tend to eat past the feeling of “full” and generally feel guilty following the “binge”. In contrast, normal physical hunger usually comes on gradually and the person is open to an array of food options to fulfill the physical need to eat. The normal eater can usually wait with patience until food is available and stops when they are full without experiencing guilt for having eaten.[2] Even though many people claim to be food lovers. An important distinction is that the opposite of love in the case of food is not hate, but rather indifference. This is a healthy attitude that allows one to take food or leave it without emotional consequences.


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    There is no question that emotional eating is disruptive to one’s wellbeing both mentally and physically. Those who recognize their negative patterns with food often experience feelings of depression, anxiety, self-loathing and excessive guilt. Relationships, work, and home life may become disrupted as a result of the behavior, the very same triggers that may have led to the issue to begin with. Fortunately, there are some actions you can take to begin to alleviate emotional eating.


    1. Bring awareness to your patterns

    Recognizing that you use food to suppress negative emotions is the first step. By beginning to notice and write down your emotional triggers and the foods you typically turn to for comfort will support you in stopping the behavior before it starts. Keep a food journal to track hunger levels and eating patterns.


    2. Decide on a plan of action when emotions and feelings arise

    There are many other actions that you can take instead of eating in the moment the emotion arises. You could go for a walk, watch a movie, read, call a friend, etc. Yoga and meditation are particularly beneficial for instantly calming the mind and lessoning the impact of the emotions. Exercise is also a great way to decrease the desire to eat in the moment.


    3. Consider joining a support group or working with a therapist/coach

    Partaking in alternative activities instead of eating when the emotion arises is only a temporary solution. Learning ways to manage stress, finding the source of negative belief patterns, and uncovering the deeper reasons you turn to food are all important actions for overcoming food related, addictive behavior.


    4. Learn about health and proper nutrition

    Since most emotional eaters make unhealthy food choices that further aggravate the problem by causing weight gain and other health problems, learning about nutrition should be a priority. A healthy diet consists of mostly plant foods, which includes vegetables, nuts/seeds, fruits, beans and a limited amount of whole grains. Simple carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods should be virtually eliminated from the diet if possible. For those who eat meat and dairy, only fresh, organic, grass-fed/free range sources are recommended. Even though emotional eating is less detrimental when the foods consumed are healthy, any type of pattern related to feeling-oriented eating needs to be addressed at a deeper level.


    5. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

    One alternative method you may want to try is EFT. Like acupuncture, EFT works with the same energy meridians within the body to balance the energy and relieve conditions with an emotional cause. The therapy consists of a tapping sequence that can be done at home, addressing a specific emotional problem.


    [1] (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/emotional-eating-feeding-your-feelings?page=2


    [2] (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/life/emotional_eating_stress_cravings.htm

Published On: April 03, 2013