What Is Emotional Eating and How To Change It

What Is Emotional Eating and How To Change It

Have you discovered you are an emotional eater, frequently seeking comfort foods, and now you have a burning desire to learn how to stop emotional eating forever? On the other hand, you may not yet know the signs of emotional eating, but you are here because you are experiencing unwanted weight gain or other concerns that lead you to wonder if you fall into that category. Whatever your current circumstances, recognizing the patterns and consequences of your eating habits can have an immense and positive effect on your relationship with food.

Table of Contents

The Insidious Cycle of Overeating

First things first: What is emotional eating? Have you ever experienced something bad, such as heartbreaking news, stressful changes at work or your computer completely dying at the worst possible time, and felt the urge to eat a bowl of ice cream or binge on potato chips? Have you tried to diet and it wasn’t working? If so, you may have experienced the call of the emotional eating beast. Acting on this call can turn into a detrimental cycle: eat based on emotion, feel new bad emotion (e.g., shame, regret), eat more based on new emotion. Welcome, you’re in the right place to learn how to unravel your patterns and, ultimately, how to overcome emotional eating.

The Reward Feedback Loop of Habits

Why does emotional eating happen? People tend to act based on perceived rewards. Habits develop based on positive and negative experiences as part of those perceived rewards.

Delicious foods, especially those with sugar, switch on a “reward” feedback loop in your brain that can contribute to emotional eating: your brain releases dopamine, the dopamine causes the amazing foods to imprint on your mind more strongly so you will remember what it was and where to find it again, and you are later coaxed to seek those foods repeatedly. This cycle can become an emotional eating disorder over time.

The Repetition of the Loop

The dopamine enhances the memory of a food and gives it context, but also provides a sense of pleasure and happiness around that food. During the pre-agricultural days, the reward cycle was a useful defense mechanism against starvation.

Conversely, with modern-day access to all things at all times, people can eat anything any time. Combine that with an always-on world, where there are increasing demands, and you might be looking for the best books on emotional eating in no time. Because food can be a powerful mood-enhancer, your body will drive you to find more.

The Disruption of Other Signals

Under optimal conditions, your body should only signal you to eat when you genuinely need more nutrients and fuel to maintain proper energy balances.

The role that the dopamine-reward cycle plays in your signals can disrupt those ideal conditions. Instead of being signaled to eat due to hunger and genuine need, your signals may come from emotional triggers. Stress, in particular, has been researched as a factor in driving people to mindlessly eat more high-energy foods such as sweets, which in turn contributes to a slew of health concerns including the possibility of an early death. This makes breaking free from emotional eating even more important.

The Three Parts to Any Habit

Many people have successfully learned how to control emotional eating by understanding the elements of a habit and then taking a mindful approach to food. A habit, whether good or bad, has three parts:

  • Trigger
  • Behavior
  • Result

Like other people who have conquered this problem, you have the chance to stop emotional eating by knowing how these three parts work in tandem and then identifying them in your own habit cycles.

First Comes the TRIGGER

Triggers, the events that lead to emotional eating, can come in many forms. They may be purely the result of outside influences, or stemming from something more internal:

  • External influences:
  • Your car gets rear-ended at a stoplight when you’re already too busy and stressed to handle one more series of tasks (e.g., insurance claims, repair estimates).
  • Your furnace dies in the middle of winter and you can’t afford the replacement.
  • Internal influences:
  • You experience a general sense of depression, anxiety or stress.
  • Hearing about a friend’s massively successful business, although great news to you consciously, sends you down a subconscious thought-spiral toward thinking about a lack of success in your own life.

Next Is the BEHAVIOR

Once the trigger sinks its claws into you, the response or behavior follows. This behavior is your habit, which is emotional eating in this case:

  • An entire bag of potato chips or flavored tortilla chips
  • A whole box of cookies from the bakery
  • An entire liter of soda
  • A pile of candies you still have after last Halloween’s trick-or-treaters
  • A huge haul of fries, soda, mini-pies and other snacky foods from the closest fast-food establishments

Finally Comes the RESULT

After you indulge in your habit, you might feel great at first: Those snacks were delicious! However, after the euphoria of the behavior begins to subside, your stress may only be compounded by the downsides of emotional eating:

  • You may feel sick, vomit or gain weight.
  • Perhaps you get flare-ups of inflammatory skin reactions to the load of sugar and over-processed food.
  • The combination of physical discomforts and feelings of regret may contribute to shame, guilt, depression or anxiety.

The good news is that you are becoming more aware of these patterns, and that is probably what brought you here seeking emotional eating help.

The Power of Awareness

With greater awareness, you can begin overcoming emotional eating. Become curious and ask yourself questions about your experiences:

  • Am I getting any benefit from continuing these cycles?
  • It may feel good initially, but what other results am I subjecting myself to?
  • What emotions and physical sensations do I experience?
  • Is this having a negative impact not just on myself, but on others in my life, such as my kids, pets, co-workers and so on? For example, is this interfering with my ability to see to my family’s needs, engage in social activities and perform my job duties?
  • Do I genuinely want to keep repeating these cycles of emotional eating, or am I doing it on autopilot?

The Need for Kindness and Curiosity

As you learn how to stop emotional eating, it’s essential to be kind to yourself and approach your habit-exploration with curiosity, rather than judging and criticizing yourself. Like many people, you may be harder on yourself than you have reason to be. Can you recall ever exploring your habits with gentle curiosity? The rewards of maintaining an open and kind mind can be powerful, rivaling the rewards your brain experiences from the foods you’ve enjoyed.

The Next Level of Self-Improvement

Now that you know some causes, you can establish alternatives to emotional eating. While emotional eating books and other resources may teach you what it is, a truly effective therapeutic approach can come in the form of real-time tracking, achievements and community support. For that reason, Dr. Jud’s resources are invaluable. For example, if you want an easier way to map your unwanted habits, whatever they may relate to, then Dr. Jud’s free, printable Map My Habit tool is specifically designed to help you streamline your efforts.

In fact, Dr. Jud has a collection of tools to help you eliminate all your bad habits. The Eat Right Now app has helped participants reduce their cravings by as much as 40%; the Unwinding Anxiety app has helped people drop their anxiety levels by up to 57%; and the Craving to Quit app has helped users quit smoking at a rate five times greater than the gold standard of simply trying to cease smoking.

Ready to take a huge step toward your best self and end emotional eating? Visit the Eat Right Now website for more support, articles and advice, plus an amazing community to enhance your emotional eating therapy and share in your journey.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is emotional eating harmful?

It may cause weight gain and hormonal imbalances. It can even affect hormones that regulate appetite and satiety. The imbalances can lead to even more overeating, perpetuating the cycle.

When is it appropriate to engage in emotional eating?

Certain physiological conditions, such as hypoglycemia, can cause mood disturbances including anxiety, irritability, excessive worry and depression. Although hypoglycemia is often linked to diabetes, other disorders, excessive exercise or even prescription drugs can independently cause it, too. When hypoglycemia occurs, eating is necessary and important to correct not only the moods but the underlying blood sugar deficit. Not eating, under those circumstances, can be dangerous.

How to stop stress-eating when stress is part of my job?

There are many ways to stop stress-eating, including adopting methods of managing the stress itself.

Why do I feel sad after binge-eating?

Overeating can lead to feelings of depression, regret or shame.

Does binge-eating count as self-harm?

No. Self-harm involves conscious intent, while binge-eating is often a mindless activity. However, they do both involve difficulty regulating emotions healthfully, so they are often associated.

How do I know if I’m an emotional eater?

Emotional eating, in short, is eating in the absence of genuine hunger in response to emotions.




Related Topics

Is Binge Eating a Disorder?

Is Binge Eating a Disorder?

In the United States, at least 9% of the population has an eating disorder. Historically, research into eating disorders included anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and

The Problem With Comfort Food

The Problem With Comfort Food

The term comfort food is such a part of the American lexicon that many people assume they understand what it is, though perhaps not why