Emotions and eating go hand in hand.
Emotions cause us to eat.
Eating causes emotions too.
If you’re someone who “eats your feelings” or can’t stop stress eating, this article will give you a closer look at why emotional eating happens and strategies to help you stop emotional eating.
Table of Contents
What is Emotional Eating?
The ability to experience many different emotions is what makes us human.
Emotions are a necessary part of the human condition because they serve many different important purposes, while at the same time allowing us to live the life that we want to pursue.
There is a whole body of research that shows that emotions cause us to eat more.
This is emotional eating – the tendency to eat in response to a set of affective cues 1Arnow, B., Kenardy, J., & Agras, W. S. (1995). The Emotional Eating Scale: The development of a measure to assess coping with negative affect by eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(1), 79-90.
Emotional eating can get a bad rap sometimes. It’s almost always viewed negatively, and people often find themselves desperately trying to stop this pattern of eating.
Sometimes, however, emotional eating can be necessary. If you’ve had a bad day, then why not enjoy your favourite ice-cream to get some immediate pleasure?
In my view, emotional eating only becomes a problem if you take it too far, in terms of losing control over your eating or eat an amount of food that makes you feel worse off than to begin with (the emotional eating cycle”).
If this is you, then it’s probably necessary to address emotional eating.
Why do we Eat in Response to Certain Emotions?
This is a question that researchers have been studying for a very long time.
It’s a complicated answer, but let me break it down.
There appears to be both biological and psychological mechanisms that explain why emotions cause us to overeat.
Biologically speaking, certain emotions – usually negative emotions like stress, anger, or sadness – increase the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for enhancing our appetite and telling the brain that we crave those sugary and fatty foods 2Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & behavior, 91(4), 449-458.
This extra secretion of cortisol therefore encourages people to overeat.
Psychologically, negative emotions aren’t all that pleasant to experience. Whenever we experience sadness, loneliness, or anger, we often find ourselves trying to escape or avoid them. Many people use food as a coping mechanism because it brings us an immediate sense of pleasure and it can mask those nasty emotions for a brief moment 3Heatherton, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological bulletin, 110(1), 86.
Some people can effectively cheer themselves up with only one chocolate bar – they don’t go all out and binge on those foods they might be limiting.
But, for many others, one chocolate bar isn’t enough to supress these emotions, and these people often find themselves bingeing on a wide variety of foods.
There are many factors that are responsible for explaining why some people take it too far when it comes to emotional eating, such as dieting status, body image perceptions, personality traits, and genetics.
All of these factors interact to cause people to emotional eat. Unfortunately there is not one simple answer to this.
Distinguishing Emotional Hunger from Physical Hunger
Being able to tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger is a necessary component for addressing emotional eating.
Oftentimes, people are unable to distinguish the two.
Here are some ways to tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger
- Emotional hunger hits us fast. Unlike physical hunger, which tends to come on gradually during the course of the day, emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It can feel overwhelming, and the urge makes us compelled to eat.
- Emotional hunger draws us to specific foods. Physical hunger involves craving more nutrient-dense foods that give us sustained energy. Emotional hunger is a little different. It usually involves foods that we deprive ourselves, or foods that are really rich in fat, sugar, or simple carbs.
- It’s difficult to be satisfied with emotional hunger. If you’ve allowed yourself some of those foods you’re craving, then it’s likely that this won’t be enough for curbing the emotional hunger. Emotional hunger makes you want more. It wants you to keep going because it’s doing a good job at avoiding the underlying problems. This is very different to physical hunger, during which eating a certain amount of food is enough to induce feelings of satiety.
- Emotional hunger more often than not leads to mindless eating. Because we’re frantically trying to avoid those nasty emotions, we usually find ourselves eating without any awareness. Think about how often you sit in front of the TV, hand in the pop-corn bowl, and before you know it the whole bowl is wiped clean. This is what emotional hunger does to us – it lowers all forms of awareness and puts us in autopilot mode. This does not occur with physical hunger, where we are much more mindful of our experience.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
So now you know a bit about emotional eating and why it occurs.
Let’s dive into some effective strategies for stopping emotional eating
1. Identify the Culprit Emotions
Not every single emotion you will experience will cause you to overeat.
There are likely only a small number of different emotions that encourage you to seek out food.
Perhaps its stress, anxiety, anger, or boredom.
The first thing you need to do is to effectively identify which emotions are causing you to overeat
Without knowing this, then you’ll find it extremely difficult to be proactive and prevent the onset of new emotional eating episodes.
So, to identify the culprits, consider writing a journal for a week or two. Write down in detail the types of emotions you’ve experienced during the day, why you experienced them, what you wanted to do about them, and whether or not they caused you to overeat
Over the course of a week, you should have a pretty good idea on what emotions are and are not responsible for your overeating.
2. Feed your Emotions with Something Else
Find other, healthier ways to fill the void.
You need to come up with a bunch of alternative things to engage in whenever you encounter some of the emotions that usually prompt you to overeat.
The alternative activities need to be pleasurable, realistic, and straightforward.
Some great examples to have at your disposal whenever you feel an urge to emotional eat can be:
- Telephone a friend
- Watch a comedy movie
- Read a book
- Go for a walk
- Go for a massage
- Take a hot bath
- Play with some animals
3. Start to Meditate
Meditation or other mindfulness exercises are excellent strategies for addressing emotional eating.
The reason for this is that meditation forces you to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental fashion. This directly combats emotional eating as it prevents you from acting out impulsively on any emotion you might experience from day-to-day.
So, download yourself a meditation app and whenever you’re feeling down, pull out the app, focus, and breathe.
4. Make Easy Lifestyle Changes
To address emotional eating, it can be a good idea to try to prevent the onset of the emotions that are causing us to overeat.
There are many different lifestyle changes you could make that could help improve your mood, enhance your wellbeing, and reduce the likelihood of you experiencing negative emotions.
Some evidence-based lifestyle changes to work on include regular physical activity, sufficient sleep quality and quantity, limiting alcohol consumption, and spending as much time with loved ones as possible.
5. Accept your Feelings
Emotional eating stems from feeling out of control with your emotions. This powerlessness often causes us to avoid our emotions entirely.
We need to feel and accept our emotions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
This can be scary, I know. But once you recognise, accept, and embrace your core emotions, then you won’t need to desperately try to escape them through food.
To do this, you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This will enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.
Left unaddressed, emotional eating can lead to binge-eating disorder or other types of eating disorders.
While food may help ease your emotions in the short term, implementing strategies to understand and overcome with your emotional eating is far more important long term.
Are there any strategies that you have found helpful? Let me know in the comments below.
|↑1||Arnow, B., Kenardy, J., & Agras, W. S. (1995). The Emotional Eating Scale: The development of a measure to assess coping with negative affect by eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18(1), 79-90|
|↑2||Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & behavior, 91(4), 449-458|
|↑3||Heatherton, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological bulletin, 110(1), 86|