If you eat to manage your emotions, you are not alone. A 2020 study of 638 women between the ages of 19 and 39 found that 52.8% reported moderate to high emotional eating tendencies. Learning how to stop emotional eating is possible, but first, you have to get to the root of why you do it.
Defining What Causes Emotional Eating
Do you find yourself wandering to the refrigerator or cupboards and grabbing something to eat even though you know you aren’t hungry? You probably reach for the comfort foods when you do, grabbing something sweet, high in fat or carbohydrate-heavy.
Most people don’t seek out healthy food on these occasions. Emotional eating isn’t about getting the right nutrition or feeding your body. It’s about feeding your emotions, making yourself feel better and soothing negative feelings with food.
Any negative emotion can lead to emotional eating. When a negative emotion arises, you learn to use food to comfort yourself instead of confronting your feelings. Emotional states that commonly lead to eating when you aren’t hungry include:
- Stress: Chronic, high stress levels have become part of the everyday fabric of life for so many people that they might not even recognize how stressed they are. Short-term stress can reduce hunger levels due to elevated levels of adrenaline. However, when stress endures, cortisol levels rise, which leads to an increase in hunger. Eating sweet or fat counteracts the feelings of stress, momentarily causing people to feel better.
- Depression: Feeling depressed can cause either a loss of interest in food or a tendency to eat. When the latter occurs, it results in emotional eating. Eating momentarily causes someone who feels depressed to feel less so.
- Boredom: In today’s world, people often don’t know how to manage downtime. When they don’t have something to do, they feel bored and restless. Often, rather than sitting in stillness and enjoying the lack of something to do, they eat to occupy their time. Feeling bored can also occur from an overall lack of satisfaction with life rather than specifically having nothing to do. Interestingly, while boredom leads to a snacking tendency, people who have a high level of objective self-awareness may turn to healthy foods that they deem exciting as well as the usual unhealthy foods associated with emotional eating.
In addition to these common emotional triggers, anger, loneliness and anxiety can also lead some people to eat emotionally.
If you search for emotional eating books, you’ll quickly find out that the number of titles out there dealing with this topic is huge. That’s no surprise, given the stressors many people experience daily. Emotional eating can lead to obesity. While it doesn’t always and isn’t the only cause, approximately 70% of American adults are overweight or obese, indicating that emotional eating is a common concern.
Understanding What Happens When You Emotional Eat
When you’re feeling bad and eat something that makes you feel good, you learn that eating is a way to combat those negative emotions. Eating something that makes you feel better when you’re feeling bad becomes a mental memory that is recalled the next time you’re feeling bad.
Before you know it, you’ve developed a habit loop around eating to deal with your emotions. Over time, these behaviors become automatic. You no longer recognize the connection between your emotions and eating habits. The good news is that overcoming emotional eating is possible. Like any habit, you can learn to break it if you have the right tools.
Learning How To Stop Emotional Eating
Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows that willing yourself to eat better doesn’t work. Awareness is the first step in breaking a habit and changing behavior, and the first thing to start noticing is what is happening to your body and mind when you have the urge to eat.
Emotional Hunger Signals
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are really hungry or just emotionally hungry. Learning how to stop emotional eating requires understanding the differences between wanting to eat for emotional reasons and consuming food because your body needs nutrients.
Knowing the signals of emotional eating can help you differentiate it from healthy eating habits. There are seven primary signs of emotional eating:
- Your hunger is sudden, urgent and overwhelming.
- You crave unhealthy foods high in fats, sugars and salt.
- When you eat, the task is mindless.
- You eat really fast, hardly noticing flavors and textures from one bite to the next.
- You eat until you are stuffed and uncomfortably full.
- Your hunger is more craving than the physical sensation of an empty stomach.
- After you finish eating, you feel a sense of guilt, shame or regret.
Bringing awareness to your eating habits can help you understand when you are physically hungry or emotionally craving.
When you create a habit, your brain automates the trigger-behavior-reward response. You have to start paying attention to that cycle to break it. When you feel the urge to eat, check-in with how you feel. Are you sad? Anxious? Stressed? Then ask yourself why you feel this way.
Understand what triggers your emotional eating response. It can be helpful to keep a diary or use a tool that helps you track your triggers and cravings.
Mindful Eating Practices
Instead of trying to prevent yourself from eating at that moment, go ahead and eat, but do it mindfully. Mindful eating is about bringing awareness to the process by:
- Eating slowly
- Notice the smell of the food
- Pay attention to the texture and flavor
- Chew thoroughly and take note of changes in texture and taste as you do
- Notice how your body feels as you eat
- Pay attention to changes in your emotions, including how you feel when you’re finished eating
With mindful eating practices, you interrupt the automated trigger-behavior-reward cycle and start to reframe how your respond to your triggers and what food means to you. You begin to find the behavior less rewarding.
Our Eat Right Now program provides you with the tools and support you need to successfully change your relationship with food and break the bad eating habit loop. You’ll learn how to build positive eating habits and long-term emotional resilience. Getting started is easy. Sign up today!