Do you find yourself coming home after a bad day at work or a fight with your partner, only to reach for the nearest bag of chips or carton of ice cream?
When we use comfort foods to dull a negative emotion or accentuate a positive emotion, we’re engaging in emotional eating.
Experts agree that occasional emotional eating is normal and healthy.
However, if you’re making it into a regular habit, emotional eating can become a problem for both your waistline and your self-esteem.
Eating too many calories when our bodies don’t need them leads to weight gain, and over-indulgence often generates feelings of guilt – especially if you’re trying hard to lose weight.
So what can we do to start overcoming emotional eating?
Below we’ll discuss emotional eating, what triggers it, distinguishing emotional vs. physical hunger and how to overcome emotional eating habits on your weight loss journey.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is the act of eating in response to emotions.
A lot of people think that this behavior refers only to overeating because of negative emotions, but it also counts as emotional eating when you celebrate with food.
While various feelings prompt this behavior, the response is relatively uniform. Most emotional splurges center around eating large quantities of comfort foods high in fat, sugar, and carbs.
Occasional emotional eating is part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle, but if you devour half a cake or polish off a bag of potato chips every time you have a bad day, that quickly becomes a problem.
This holds even more true because, for many people, it’s everyday inconveniences – not major life events – that prompt emotional eating.
When food becomes your favorite (or only) way to cope with negative feelings, emotional splurges grow more common, and weight gain often ensues.
To make things worse, it’s common to feel a strong sense of guilt, shame, or sadness after bingeing. This self-loathing only perpetuates the negative mindset.
Thankfully, overcoming emotional eating is possible. Increasing conscious awareness of your emotions and intake can help break this unproductive cycle.
If emotional eating has become the norm for you, learning to face your emotions and distinguish emotional vs physical hunger will help you lose weight.
Psychology of Emotional Eating
Most emotional eaters reach for a snack when they’re angry, sad, stressed, bored, or anxious. It’s also normal to eat when you’re very happy or excited.
Here’s a little more about the psychology of emotional eating, including both social and biological factors.
Social customs and habits are one of the main reasons we overeat. From a young age, we’re comforted with food and witness others processing their emotions with food.
So much so that it’s become commonplace to reward kids’ good behavior with food and unflinchingly watch rom-com stars dig into a box of chocolates after a breakup.
Unsurprisingly, then, we grow up and continue those behaviors. Got a promotion at work? Have a glass of wine and some cake! Shouting match with your mom?
Many holidays (think Thanksgiving, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, birthdays, etc.) are also centered around food.
Our cultures constantly intertwine food and emotions. So, it’s no great surprise that some people turn that occasional, celebratory emotional eating into less festive, more frequent emotional eating.
We also develop emotional eating behaviors out of habit.
Do you come home from work or school and go straight to the kitchen to grab a snack every day? Or make a beeline for the concessions stand each time you go to a movie or athletic event?
Those are all examples of eating out of habit, not real hunger. If you’re already well-accustomed to snacking when you’re not hungry, it’s not as much of a jump to eat emotionally when you’re bored or anxious despite feeling no real hunger.
Gaining awareness of eating habits can help you reduce unnecessary snacking and lose weight.
Your body does little to discourage this destructive behavior. Overcoming emotional eating means breaking the mental barrier, as well as overpowering a physical desire to eat junk food.
Ever wonder why you always crave unhealthy foods when you eat emotionally?
Why can’t we come home from a terrible day at work with a hankering for some carrots or a piece of baked fish? Thank you, brain.
Research shows that eating high-carb, high-sugar foods increases serotonin release. Serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter, so higher levels of this chemical physically make you feel better.
No wonder we crave junk food like cake, cheesy pasta, and cookies when we’re feeling down!
Some studies suggest that high-fat, high-sugar foods release a chemical similar to opioids in our brains (opioids are the active ingredient in highly-addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin).
So, if that delicious bowl of ice cream creates a similar high biologically, it’s more than understandable why we keep returning for more. Still, just like with drugs, it’s best to break this habit.
Overcoming emotional eating can be difficult, but it’s an important step for your physical and mental health.
Emotional vs. Physical Hunger
The first step in overcoming emotional eating is learning to distinguish between emotional vs. physical hunger.
So, how can you tell the difference between these two types of hunger? There are four main indicators:
- Speed of onset
- Food choice
- Reaction to eating
How to Evaluate Emotional vs. Physical Hunger
Physical hunger grows. Emotional “hunger” comes on suddenly.
While true hunger develops gradually as you get farther and farther from your last healthy meal, emotional cravings arise suddenly.
If you weren’t at all hungry 20 minutes ago and now you’re feeling ravenous, consider what else may be making you reach for a snack.
Physical hunger is satisfied by any food. Emotional “hunger” makes you crave something specific.
There’s a simple test called the “appetite” assessment that can help you determine whether you’re hungry or emotional.
If your body needs nourishment, you’ll gladly reach for an apple to help quell the hunger.
If, on the other hand, you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple (only chocolate cake will do!), then it’s probably not physical hunger. Check your appetite for an apple, or “appetite”, to tell the difference.
Physical hunger goes away when you’ve eaten enough. Emotional “hunger” remains.
If your body truly needs nourishment, your interest in food will fade after you’ve eaten a reasonable portion.
However, emotional hunger will stick around and often leads to mindless eating. This is why emotional eating frequently makes us eat until we’re uncomfortably stuffed.
If your hunger isn’t going away as you eat, assess what’s prompting this sudden interest in snacking.
Satisfying physical hunger makes you feel better. Satisfying emotional “hunger” makes you feel worse.
When you eat due to physical hunger, you feel satisfied and good after the meal. You’ve given your body the fuel it needs!
On the flip side, if you’re noshing because of emotional “hunger,” it’s common to have feelings of guilt, shame, or sadness after finishing your food.
Eating should be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, so if you’re constantly beating yourself up about grabbing a snack, consider why you’re eating.
That being said, if you battle these negative feelings every time you eat (even when you’re genuinely in need of fuel), bring it up to someone you trust, like a friend, family member, or doctor.
Nourishing your body should be something enjoyable, not a source of stress and anguish.
If you’re struggling, a doctor, therapist, or another confidant can help you find the resources you need to develop a healthier relationship with food (and yourself!).
Overcoming Emotional Eating
Now that you can better differentiate emotional vs. physical hunger, how do you start overcoming emotional eating?
The good news is that learning to recognize when you’re eating emotionally is a HUGE step in the right direction.
From there, it’s all about changing your habits and resisting the urge to eat when you know it’s not real hunger.
Here are a few more tips about how to overcome emotional eating habits and lose weight!
One of the best ways to start overcoming emotional eating is to take five before you eat.
When you’re really, physically hungry, you want to eat sooner rather than later, but it’s not excruciating to wait for five, ten, or even thirty minutes.
So, when a craving hits, the first step is trying to wait it out. If you’re still just as hungry after five (or more) minutes, that’s a sign that you may really need nourishment.
If you’re ready to take it a step further, use that quick time-out to think about how you’re feeling.
Do a self-check to assess whether you’re feeling an especially strong emotion (sadness, anger, boredom, anxiety, excitement, etc.) or just hungry.
Also, think about how long you’ve been feeling hungry. If you weren’t at all hungry half an hour ago, do you really need to eat right now?
Finally, try the “appetite” test that we discussed above to help differentiate between emotional and physical hunger.
Keep a Food Journal
Keeping a food journal is popular advice from doctors and dietitians when you’re trying to lose weight, but it’s also helpful for overcoming emotional eating.
Tracking when and what you eat helps increase awareness about the quantity and quality of food (and drinks) you consume.
Take note of whether your calories are equally distributed throughout the day or concentrated at one specific time.
If you’re eating 60% or 80% of your daily calories within a couple of hours, is that because of emotional or mindless eating?
If so, awareness of this tendency will do wonders in helping you develop healthier, more balanced strategies to overcome the habit!
To make life easier, check out some of these apps for weight loss that makes tracking and goal-setting infinitely simpler!
You may also find it beneficial to track emotions alongside food and drinks to assess better whether your intake is affected by your emotions.
Think of the top three foods (or types of foods) that you crave when you’re in a mood. Got them?
Okay, stop buying those. If temptation is conveniently accessible at your fingertips, it’s way easier to give in than if you have to get up and go to the store to buy it.
So, if you can identify your favorite, easy-to-grab comfort foods and avoid them, that might be the push you need to reduce emotional eating!
If you can’t fathom giving up one of your foods, buy a smaller portion or a healthier alternative. That way, you’ll still have it once or twice a week, but you can’t eat it every night.
Remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you can reduce the number of times, you emotionally eat in a week from five to two, that’s still progress toward overcoming emotional eating!
Distraction is a wonderful thing! Well… maybe not so much when you’re at work or trying to finish a project with a deadline… but it’s an amazing thing when you’re trying to stop eating emotionally.
For most of us, the heat of emotions only lasts for a few hours, so distracting yourself during this time is a big help in overcoming emotional eating.
Sidetrack yourself by engaging in a healthier behavior like:
- Going for a walk or hike
- Calling a friend
- Watching a movie or some TV
- Playing a game
- Reading a good book or magazine
- Hanging out with your dog or cat
Chances are that you’ll get wrapped up in whatever you’re doing and forget the craving altogether.
Still, if you can’t stop thinking about chocolate chip cookies even hours later, let yourself indulge in a healthy portion.
Separate out one serving of your favorite food into a bowl, and then put away the container and go eat in another room.
Avoid snacking straight out of the container since this makes it SO much easier to overeat unintentionally.
Plan to Snack
Finally, remember to snack! Does it seem weird that we’re recommending that you eat more to eat less? It’s actually very important. A big trigger for emotional eating is growing overly hungry and turning to food in a moment of weakness.
Tackle this cause head-on by planning regular snacks between meals. If you snack regularly to control hunger, it’s easier to deal with your feelings in a productive way and resist temptation.
Are you interested in overcoming emotional eating? Or have you learned to eat mindfully? Share your thoughts and experience with us in the comments section below!