Have you ever felt like reaching for a bag of cookies after a stressful day at work, or celebrating an accomplishment by going out for ice cream? If so, you’ve experienced a form of emotional eating, and you’re certainly not alone.
Now, don’t jump to conclusions, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying food. Let’s face it--food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and it tastes amazing. Enjoying food and using it as a method to deal with emotions only becomes a problem if it’s your primary source of pleasure and comfort.
In this FitBliss blog, you’ll discover what emotional eating is, how it may be harmful, how to recognize when it’s happening, and steps to take to overcome it.
What is emotional eating?
Simply put, emotional eating involves eating for the purpose of soothing or coping with an emotion. While it is most often associated with negative feelings such as stress, loneliness, boredom, and heartache, it can also occur as a response to positive emotions such as joy and love.
This means that we can eat emotionally when we are both happy or sad, anxious or calm, angry or joyful. It is important to clarify that emotional eating doesn’t only affect chronic binge eaters or those with disordered eating patterns. Nearly every human being will engage in some episode of emotional eating at various points in his or her life.
How is emotional eating potentially harmful?
We are faced with hundreds of emotions and situations every day, and many of us have not been taught or practiced healthy ways to deal with such sporadic and often difficult feelings. Because we all have to eat to live, food is a common and easily accessible tool to help soothe and cope with our emotions.
Most people have particular foods they gravitate towards—for some its chocolate, and for others it might be salty potato chips. While there is nothing wrong with eating these foods in moderation, emotional eating often involves consuming larger than normal portion sizes and can result in losing touch with one’s internal hunger and fullness cues.
This can ultimately lead to a spiral of binge eating, negative body image, weight gain, urges to restrict food intake, development of chronic diseases, and an overall unhealthful relationship with food, one’s body, and oneself.
How to recognize emotional eating
There are 2 main types of hunger: physical and emotional. Because the two are easily confused, it’s important to compare the two to help identify which type you may be experiencing most often.
|Physical Hunger||Emotional Hunger|
|Develops slowly, over time||Comes on quickly|
|Occurs in response to hunger symptoms such as low energy & gnawing in the stomach||Occurs in response to emotions, either positive or negative|
|Able to be satisfied by a variety of foods||Only satisfied by specific food cravings|
|Ability to stop eating at level of fullness||Likely to eat past fullness and even binge|
|Leads to satisfaction, not guilt||Is often linked to guilt and shame|
|Designed to be experienced daily||May come and go and is experienced more or less often depending on the individual|
How to help overcome the emotional eating cycle
1. Gain awareness. You can do this by being mindful of the differences between emotional and physical hunger. The more awareness you have about when it is happening, the closer you are to getting past it.
2. Remove triggering foods. As mentioned, many people have a particular food or foods that they gravitate towards during emotional eating. Take a moment to evaluate what that might be for you and intentionally remove it from your environment until you are able to feel more in control. Without access to your “go-to” food, you may be more inclined to deal with your emotions in a more productive manner rather than turn to food.
3. Work on honoring your feelings without using food. When emotions are running high, try alternate activities such as going for a walk outdoors, writing a letter, writing in a journal, or making a phone call to someone you enjoy speaking with. Breaking the habit of turning to food to cope with emotions can be tough, but the more you engage in other behaviors, the more natural it will become.
4. Identify and deal with the root cause of your emotions. Recognize that eating will only temporarily resolve whatever emotion it is that you are feeling. Rather than ignoring the feeling or covering it up, take time to identify what caused it and how you may be able to respond to the emotion in a healthier manner. What are your needs during this time, and what do you need to do to help resolve the emotion in the long term?
5. Give yourself grace. Emotional eating is inevitably going to happen to just about everyone at some point in their life. Rather than shaming yourself after an episode, work on positive self-talk, including forgiveness. Focus on the truth that just because it happened one day or for one meal, doesn’t mean it has to happen continually. Try learning from the experience and use it as an opportunity to plan for the future.
When is it time to seek professional help, and what can that accomplish?
While it is possible to work on recovering from emotional eating on your own, it can become a deep-rooted issue that warrants the support from a professional. If you find you are repeatedly unable to work through the emotions that may be causing the eating episodes on your own or by engaging in alternate activities, seek professional help from a therapist or intuitive eating practitioner who can provide the support you need to get to the root of your issue.
These professionals are trained to help you identify habits and behaviors about yourself that you may have been ignoring for so long that you forgot they were there. They can also serve as external accountability and offer tips on coping with your emotions in a positive way that is unique to you.
Emotional eating is a normal experience that nearly everyone engages in at some point or another, and can be tied to both positive or negative emotions, though negative emotions are more likely triggers. It is completely possible to overcome emotional eating, but it takes time, perseverance, and dedication.
You have to commit to practicing these tools every day, and you have to be kind, loving and gentle with yourself every step of the way. If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional eating, offer support and consider reaching out to a professional as needed.
Joanna Foley, RD
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