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Diet & Nutrition, Health

What Is Emotional Eating And How To Stop It

Registered Nutritionist, and doctor
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Do you sometimes eat to feel better or reduce stress? We don’t always eat to satisfy physical hunger. But sometimes, we eat for emotional needs instead. When we do, it’s often comforting but less healthy foods—and this is called emotional eating.

If you think you suffer from emotional eating, read this article to find out more about how to identify it and practical tips on how to stop.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when you eat high-calorie low-nutrition foods whenever you feel stressed.[1] Emotional eating attempts to fulfill your emotional needs and make yourself feel better rather than your stomach. There is a wide range of emotional triggers to this, such as boredom, stress, anxiety, habit, depression.

Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional concerns, and it can actually make you feel worse. As not only does the original issue remain, but you may also feel guilty for eating more than you need.

How Can I Tell if I’m Emotional Eating?

While it may seem obvious to only eat when you are hungry, it can be quite hard to identify emotional eating because you may not even realize that you are already doing it.

But you are probably wondering: how can I tell if I do this, too?

One way to identify if you are emotional eating is to keep a diary of how you feel when you eat. This will help you identify your triggers, too. Consider and record how you are feeling every time you eat, what you ate, and how you felt after.

  • Do you eat more or less when you are feeling stressed?
  • Do you eat to feel better?
  • Do you find eating cheers you up or calms you down when you feel anxious?
  • Does food feel like a comforting friend?
  • Do you feel you are powerless over what and how much you eat?
  • Do you use food as a reward?

There is a huge social and enjoyment aspect of food and eating that is healthy. Getting pleasure out of food is different from using food as your primary emotional coping strategy when you feel low, stressed, angry, upset, tired, bored, or lonely.

Emotional eating often starts with negative thoughts, which is a learned behavior, that we usually pick up subconsciously. But it can also be linked to positive feelings, such as rewarding yourself or celebrating an event.

Is It Physical or Emotional Hunger?

At first, it can be really difficult to distinguish between physical and emotional cues for eating. However, some practical tips can help you work out the differences:

Physical hunger:

  • Gradually builds and can wait
  • Unlikely to crave specific foods
  • Stops when you are full
  • Is not associated with feelings of guilt once you have eaten

Emotional hunger:

  • Comes on suddenly and feels like it can’t wait
  • Likely to crave specific items of food
  • Isn’t satisfied after eating
  • Can trigger feelings of guilt, shame, and powerlessness

Risks Associated With Emotional Eating

When you eat for emotional reasons, not only are you unable to address the root causes of your emotional concerns, but it is also often associated with guilt and overeating. This sets up a negative cycle where we feel bad that we overate but then use food to soothe us again.

Overeating can lead to obesity, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, cancers, arthritis, and depression. Becoming obese can also lead to a loss of control, especially over our weight and eating. Overeating can also cause nausea, which gives a strong feeling of discomfort.[2] These risk further emotional eating.

Stress Can Impact What You Eat

Stress has both a physiological and psychological impact on appetite. Nutrition is now known to also affect stress via the two-way connection between our gut and brain (gut-brain-axis). Chronic stress is associated with a greater desire for energy and nutrient-dense food, such as high fat and high sugar.[3]

The stress hormone, cortisol, has been found in mice to have the opposite effect on the hormone leptin, which inhibits hunger. Mice with higher levels of cortisol continued to eat and gained weight. This suggests that not only might you eat due to stress, but cortisol amplifies this by making us feel physically hungry even when we aren’t.

This demonstrates that there is a physiological component to emotional eating as well as a psychological one. High-fat and high sugar foods stimulate reward pathways in the brain that are associated with pleasurable experiences. Withdrawal of these foods may result in increased cravings for them.

Stress is an important factor in the development of addiction and relapse. The addiction to the neurochemical rewards of these high-fat and sugary foods may be linked to stress.


Microorganisms in Your Gut Also Affects Your Mood

The trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut (microbiota) play an important role in susceptibility to many diseases.[4]

Incredibly, our behaviors such as social activity, stress, and anxiety-related responses can be modulated by our microbiota. However, the methods by which this influence occurs remains poorly understood.

The gut-brain axis describes the two-directional signaling between the gut microbiota and the brain.[5] Studies have shown the composition of the microbiota and the production of different neuroactive metabolites formed by them can have direct effects on the brain.

In a large population study, the presence of different microorganisms was correlated with quality of life and the incidence of depression.[6]

Can I Stop Emotional Eating?

The good news is that once you have thought about and identified your triggers for emotional eating, it then becomes possible to challenge these behaviors.

There are several practical steps that you can take to help change your eating habits:

  • When you get a craving or feel hungry, check in and see what your emotional state is.
  • If you feel hungry, pause and decide if it can wait or not. See how you are feeling and why you have the craving.
  • Try to avoid having forbidden foods as they are so much more tempting.
  • Eat mindfully, focusing on each mouthful without the distractions of a screen.[7] Pay attention to each bite. Enjoy the flavors and textures of what you eat.
  • Savor every mouthful, and don’t eat in a rush. It also takes time for hormone reflexes to let you know that you are physically full.
  • Accept that we all have negative feelings. But avoiding them can mean they rebound, time and time again.
  • Avoid the need to finish the plate of food just because it’s there. Listen to your body, and stop when you are full.

If you feel bored, try reading a book, doing sudoku or a puzzle, or find a hobby you enjoy. If you feel lonely, try connecting with friends or volunteering, even if it’s only digitally or on the phone.

If you are feeling upset, try listening to music, enjoying a smell that evokes happy feelings, or reaching out to friends or pets. If you feel exhausted, resist the temptation to load up on sugar and try a warm bath early at night or get a hot drink instead.

Support Your Emotional Health With a Healthy Lifestyle

We all have stresses or moments of anxiety and boredom in our lives. To avoid emotional eating, it helps to have other ways of supporting your emotional needs instead of just using food.

Additionally, these will help with resilience so that it’s easier to navigate more challenging times that you face and will face in your life.

Here are some tips to support your emotional health with a healthy lifestyle:

  • Aim to get a good night’s sleep of approximately 8 hours.
  • Exercising regularly not only improves your physical health but also your mental health and reduces stress.
  • Make some time in the day for yourself, and permit yourself to relax, even if you only start with 5 minutes each day and build up from there.
  • Value your friends and family, as a close bond can help with coping with challenges.

Final Thoughts

Emotional eating is harmful not only to our mental well-being but also our physical health. It’s not something that people want, but it happens nonetheless. Emotional eating is not easy to control if you have no idea about it, or if you don’t know that you already do it. You can start with the tips in this article to help yourself stop emotional eating and learn to manage your stress better.

More Tips For Emotional Eaters


Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com


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