Do you use food to address your emotional needs, rather than fueling your body? If so, you are one of many people engaging in emotional eating.
It’s common for people to turn to food for comfort, especially in stressful, difficult times. When you’re in middle of an uncomfortable, emotionally draining time in your life, practicing mindful eating can feel like just another task on your plate.
But as you probably know, emotional eating doesn’t make you feel any better afterward. In fact, it leaves you feeling guilty, sad and out of control.
That’s exactly why it’s so important to learn how to practice intuitive eating and focus on using food to fill your stomach, not your emotional voids.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is when you eat in response to negative emotions or stress. This can be done consciously or unconsciously, sometimes occurring when a person is undergoing a stressful, uncomfortable situation, or even when he or she is bored.
For most emotional eaters, food is used to soothe feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger and fear. Research shows that emotional eaters attempt to self-medicate and self-regulate their moods with food, usually in the act of overeating.
Life events that are perceived as negative can trigger emotional eating and even weight gain. But emotional eating can also be used fulfill a feeling of deprivation, which may occur when on a diet or restricting calorie consumption.
An emotional and physical emptiness is being “filled” with food when you eat. For emotional eaters, the food provides a temporary wholeness, but it doesn’t last long.
Emotional Eating Cycle
Emotional eating is an unhealthy cycle that’s repeated over and over again, sometimes allowing the problem to get out of control. For people dealing with daily emotional eating, it’s a type of binge eating disorder.
The emotional eating cycle is continuous. It begins with trigger that leads to discomfort and promotes eating, even if you aren’t actually hungry.
The stages of emotional eating are:
- Stress or trigger occurs
- Turn to food for comfort
- Temporarily feel relief
- Develop feelings of guilt and sadness
Why do we use food for comfort and engage in this harmful cycle? For many people, the fullness they feel from food takes the place of fulfillment they lack in other areas of life.
There can be a feeling of emptiness that’s stemmed from relationships issues, issues related to self-esteem and worthiness, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
If you’re an emotional eater, you may be getting cues for emotional hunger confused with physical hunger. It helps to understand the difference between the two types of hunger, so here’s a simple breakdown:
- Develops over time
- Comes with physical signs, including empty stomach, lack of energy, stomach growling, moodiness
- You want to eat a balanced meal and you’re open to eating different foods
- While eating, you use your senses to enjoy the food
- After eating, you feel full and satisfied
- You don’t experience feelings of guilt after eating
- Develops randomly and quickly
- Doesn’t come with physical signs of hunger but is triggered by emotional discomfort
- Comes with specific food cravings (like for sugary or salty foods)
- You stress about your food choices and tend to label foods as “good or bad”
- You ignore portion sizes and overeat without even noticing
- Usually doesn’t come with a filling sensation after eating
- You feel like you’re eating in a trance
- Leads to feelings of guilt, regret and sadness
How to Stop Emotional/Stress Eating
Good news — there are ways to combat emotional eating. Research published in the Journal of Eating Disorders indicates that promoting exercise, mindful eating, emotion regulation and positive body image could have positive effects on emotional eaters.
1. Identify Your Triggers
Perhaps the most important step is overcoming emotional or binge eating is identifying your triggers. What situations, conversations, experiences or feelings occur when the cycle begins?
To pinpoint your triggers, try keeping a journal that describes what occurred before you began eating, even when you weren’t physically hungry. Then look for patterns and work to redirect your behavior or reaction to the trigger.
Instead of reaching for comforting foods, have a list of healthy alternatives that will help you to work through the discomfort.
2. Avoid Severe Calorie Restriction
Are you constantly on a diet and restricting calorie intake? If you overthink your meals and snacks and continue a dieting mindset, you may be more likely to “eat your emotions.” This is because you are eating to comfort the feelings of deprivation and you are unsatisfied with your body and diet.
To stop overeating in moments of discomfort, try to eat more mindfully instead of dieting. Pay close attention to your physical hunger cues and prepare filling, healthy meals for yourself.
3. Pay Attention to Your Body
Humans need to eat to fuel their bodies. You should expect to be hungry several times a day.
Some basic hunger cues are a feeling of lightness in your stomach, growling stomach, headaches and weakness. Ideally, you wouldn’t wait until you’re feeling fatigued to have a meal or snack, but you’d get a sense of when you’ll need more food to maintain energy.
If it’s difficult for you to tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger, try creating an eating routine. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time every day.
You can also add in one or two snacks, if needed. Your body will adjust to these meal times, and if you feel tempted to eat outside of these times, you’ll have to think twice about whether or not you’re really hungry.
4. Enjoy Meal Times and Engage Your Senses
When you’re eating, try to remain fully engaged. Use all of your senses to enjoy the meal, including the taste, smell, colors and texture.
While eating, slow down and make it last. Don’t rush meals, and try not to multitask while you’re eating.
It also helps to sip water in between bites and tune in to your body as you eat, paying attention to the full feeling you get after finishing your portion.
5. Find Another Emotional Outlet
It’s safe to say that many of us need to get more comfortable feeling uncomfortable. It’s normal to have moments of stress, anxiety, embarrassment, fatigue and boredom.
Instead of managing discomfort with food and the act of eating, find another emotional outlet that will help soothe and validate your feelings.
Some healthy ways to ease stress, anxiety and discomfort include:
- meditation and prayer
- walking outdoors
- yoga or stretching
- bike riding
- calling a friend
- journaling or creative writing
- taking a warm bath
- drawing or coloring
6. Practice Self-Care and Acceptance
Be kind to yourself, and avoid negative self-talk. Being judgmental and critical of yourself will only lead to feelings of worthlessness and anger, furthering the emotional eating cycle.
To stop stress eating, you’ll have to change the way you treat yourself and perceive your own value.
- Do you experience food cravings after a stressful or uncomfortable situation? If so, you’re not alone. Many people experience emotional eating, and for some, it becomes a form of disordered eating that leads to feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
- Emotional eaters are triggered by stressful situations, restriction, discomfort or boredom. This sets a viscous cycle in motion, leading to binge eating and then guilt. Emotional eating is harmful because it alters the way you feel about yourself.
- To stop emotional or binge eating disorder, pinpoint your triggers, find healthier emotional outlets, begin an eating routine and be kind to yourself. Reach out for support from loved ones or professionals to help you navigate your feelings.