Emotional Eating: 5 Things You Need to Know

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Are you the type of person who finds comfort in food? Some people turn to food when something negative or stressful happens. According to the American Psychological Association, 70% of adults say they eat to manage stress, and about 34% who said they overate or ate unhealthy foods because of stress say it’s a habit. Emotional eating can derail your health goals, and here are 5 things you need to know about it.

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is a way of eating to feel better about adverse events, emotions, or soothing boredom. Triggers in your life can increase cravings for bad foods, and you often tend to overeat them. In contrast, others may eat less as a response to negative stimuli happening in their lives, which isn’t necessarily healthy either. Some people associate food with their emotions so much that it can become hard to control. It is used to replace the emptiness they may feel as a response to a stressor, but this is only temporary. Regardless of your method of emotional eating, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

How to determine emotional hunger vs. true hunger

Food is essential for us to sustain life. Although it’s fun to indulge in moderation, it’s essential to recognize the difference between emotional hunger and true hunger. Your body has signals that tell you when you’ve had enough or when it’s time to eat. Here is what to look for:

Emotional hungerPhysical hunger
Comes on suddenlyComes on gradually
Crave certain comfort foodsOpen to options and variety
Mindless eating or not satisfied with the fullnessFeel satisfied after eating
Leads to regret or shameDoesn’t make you feel bad after eating
Credit: Mayo Clinc

Recognizing Your Triggers

The first step in tackling your emotional eating is to recognize your triggers. Keep a food diary to help you determine when your emotional eating occurs and why you decided to eat at that moment. How did the food make you feel after you refrained or indulged in food?

Here are common triggers for emotional eating:

  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Heartbreak
  • Social pressure

Overcoming Emotional Eating Triggers

Once you decide what triggers your emotional eating or lack thereof, how can you overcome it? One thing to consider with emotional eating triggers is your diet and certain foods triggering you vs. an emotion. For starters, when you crave certain foods commonly, it could be your body is deficient in a nutrient. As a queue, your body may crave salty chips because it is low in iron.

In addition, as a result of your food diary, you may see that you grab the same types of food when you feel emotional eating coming on. If you are unable to control overeating when that food is around, eliminate it from your space altogether. Everything is fine in moderation, but if you cannot trust yourself to be in control, eliminate the pressure until you can.

Finally, if you refrain from eating altogether in emotional situations, always remind yourself food is essential to daily life. It would help if you had proper nutrients to have clarity in your mind and the energy physically to conquer your day. Not eating will add to the negative emotions you feel.

Other coping mechanisms for emotional eating

Wait before you eat– If you feel an emotional trigger happening before you grab food, try waiting 5 minutes. Check in with your emotions, and decide if you need that food.

Learn alternative ways to cope with stress– re-center your mind to another focus using yoga, meditation, or deep breathing techniques.

Call a family member or friend– If you feel bored, instead of grabbing food, call a family member or friend to keep you company. Find an activity you love as a replacement for boredom eating.

ExerciseExercise is a great way to cope mentally and help you feel positive. If you feel a strong emotion take a walk, do some push-ups, and sweat that stress away.

Learn moderation– Okay, so sometimes you just want to eat that food, and that’s okay! Learn how to let yourself eat what you crave without going over the top. Try portioning out your favorite indulgences and avoid mindless eating.

Get enough sleep– When you sleep 7-8 hours a night, you are helping to reduce your stress. When you are sleep deprived, it may cause you to crave bad foods putting you back in the emotional eating cycle.


When to seek help

If you think that you might need further assistance controlling emotional eating, it’s important to seek help from a professional. If you feel it is your nutrition habits, seeking out a dietician may be what you need to get back to a typical eating pattern. If you think it is more emotion-based, a therapist may be the right person to talk to.

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