Overcoming Emotional Eating

Written by Lauren Hogan on

Recognizing emotional eating patterns and finding alternative ways to manage life’s inconveniences can help create healthier eating patterns.

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A common coping mechanism to life's stressors is food. Although it helps for some time, the stressor woefully remains after the pleasure of eating is gone. Recognizing emotional eating patterns and finding alternative ways to manage life's inconveniences can help create healthier eating patterns. Emotional management is essential for optimal health and well-being.

What is Emotional Eating?

Eating and feelings have a lot of interconnections. Emotional eating is when people use food to cope with feelings and emotions rather than satisfy physical hunger. It is eating in response to intense emotions and not paying attention to physical hunger cues.

Clinical findings indicate that emotional eaters have altered brain responses to food cues. Eating in response to emotions is related to weight fluctuations, mental health, and eating disorders (commonly binge-eating and restricting).

On occasion, food eaten in tune with emotions is not cause concern. However, suppose food is the primary emotional coping mechanism. In that case, you can get stuck in an unhealthy pattern where the real feeling or trigger is never addressed. This suppression of emotions with a temporary eating fix can push someone into the emotional eating cycle.

What Causes Emotional Eating

Emotional eating can be caused by several factors. Your days may be filled with countless daily struggles such as money matters, physical ailments, and taking care of family. These can add up and create emotional responses. Additionally, emotions may be tied to significant life events such as the death of a family member, divorce, or job loss. The big and the slight discrepancies in life may cause us to seek comfort or distraction.

Eating can be a grounding experience, a comfortable distraction. When something triggers a strong emotional response, food can create a feeling of fullness that provides a short-term sense of wholeness and contentment. This temporary satisfaction may influence a false sense of emotional stability until the plate is empty and guilt feelings remain.

Often, emotional eating patterns are learned from your caregivers. Growing up with people who reward good behavior with food, take away sweet treats for bad behavior, or use food as a distraction can influence current emotional eating behaviors. Luckily, unlearning patterns of emotional eating is possible.

What About Positive Emotional Response?

Research about emotional eating most commonly revolves around negative emotions on hunger patterns; however, positive emotional responses are also factors in feeling an overwhelming urge to eat and sending one into the emotional eating cycle. This has resulted in several researchers accepting positive emotions as part of emotional eating. Positive situations can include receiving a high score on a test you studied hard for, getting a promotion at work, or celebrating your child's high school graduation. These situations can elicit positive emotional responses that leave you feeling an overwhelming urge to eat.

Eating out of celebration differs from eating because you want to feel comfortable or grounded in your emotions. If you eat cake to celebrate your friend's birthday, that is just social eating. However, if you are eating because you are anxious or stressed, that might be emotional eating. The difference between eating socially and eating emotionally is understanding the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger (more on the difference below). Having food in celebration and reward is concerning when it becomes the only dependable way of grounding when emotions are overwhelmed.

What is the Difference Between Physical Hunger and Emotional Hunger?

Understanding the difference between physical hunger versus emotional hunger can help you know how to combat emotional eating. Physical hunger comes on gradually and can be postponed; the hunger cues are more physically prominent with stomach grumbling. Typically, with physical hunger, the feeling of hunger can be satisfied with any sort of food. It means you are likely to stop eating once complete, and feelings of guilt or shame do not haunt you once you finish eating.

In contrast, emotional hunger is classified as more sudden and urgent feelings and includes more specific cravings. Usually, there are feelings of guilt or shame afterward, and one commonly eats more than one habitually would. These differences can help you decipher emotional eating patterns from physical hunger cues.

Understanding Your Emotional Triggers

What situations, people, or places trigger the overwhelming emotional response? Understanding these emotional triggers allows you to be more aware of your cognitive function. It helps you identify when you are eating emotionally rather than physically satiety.

One way to help identify your emotional triggers is to give yourself a "check-up." Try asking yourself these questions the next time you eat:

  1. Am I eating at unusual times?
  2. Am I eating more significant portions than usual?
  3. Do I feel a loss of control around food?
  4. Am I anxious most of the time while eating?
  5. Has there been an important event in my life that I am trying to deal with?
  6. Do other people in my family also use food to cope with emotions?
  7. Do I eat more when I am stressed?
  8. Does food make me feel safe?
  9. Do I feel powerless or out of control around food?
  10. Do I eat to feel better?

Four Ways to Break the Cycle

There are many ways to break the emotional eating cycle and help manage emotional eating; here are four.

1) Mindful Eating.

Mindful eating is an approach to food that focuses on individuals' sensual awareness of the food and their food experience. It focuses less on calories and more on encouraging yourself to savor the food and the eating experience. It brings full awareness to the food on your plate and your intentions with eating. This ultimately can help decipher if your eating is emotionally or physically driven.

Some ways to practice mindful eating include:

  1. Enhance your Space.
    Your environment is essential for mindful consumption. Create an aware kitchen area and peaceful dining space. Minimize distractions, set boundaries for who can be in your space with you, and keep free of clutter.
  2. Knowing your Intentions. 
    Becoming aware of why you are eating is a crucial step in mindfulness. Increasing your awareness of your intentions increases your awareness of your hunger cues. This can be done by slowing down your days or journaling (more on that below).
  3. Connect More Deeply with Your Food. 
    Connecting with your food can make you more aware of what is on your plate. Does the food on your plate serve you? Does it bring you joy while also satisfying your hunger? The purpose is to connect your body to your brain. This does not mean being obsessed with the calorie content of what is on your plate but instead more awareness of what the food does for your body and health.

Try asking yourself these questions when eating to become more aware of your food:

  • How does the food feel and smell?
  • What flavors does the food have? (chew slowly and more times)
  • When was the last time I ate this food?
  • How do I feel once I finish eating the food?

2) Alternative Activities. 

Finding replacement activities instead of eating when feeling emotional distress can help steer response away from emotional eating. Supporting yourself with other healthy habits helps break the cycle.

Here are some common emotions and substitute activities:

  • Are you feeling overwhelmed? Try listening to your favorite song, watching TV, or reading a book.
  • Feeling lethargic or tired? If you recognize that your hunger is emotionally driven and not physically driven, try taking a 20- minute nap or reassessing your sleep schedule to get between 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Are you feeling lonely? Try phoning a close family member or asking a friend to meet you for a meal.
  • Eating to delay tasks? Grant yourself a short break from your work and take a walk outside or complete a chore to get your mind off your emotions, and then return to your task.

3) Slow Down Your Day

Maybe you have been there: rushing through the door after a busy day from work and throwing down your bags only to find yourself reaching for the pantry door before you even had a second to take a breath. What if, instead, you took a second to relax after finishing a busy day? What if, instead of mindlessly eating food to cope with your day's struggles, you took a second to breathe, meditate, and find quiet time to settle your emotions? This will allow you to decipher if you are reaching for food out of the comfort of unsettling feelings or out of hunger.

4) Keep a Journal

Keeping a food and mood journal helps keep track of your emotions before, during, and after eating. It can help you process emotions, reflect on your awareness, and increase clarity about confusing feelings. Notice the patterns between your journal entries: when the stress occurs in your day versus when you reach for food.

Here is some journal entry prompts to start you off:

  • What are the most significant stressors in my life?
  • What emotions usually trigger me to eat?
  • What is my current relationship with food?
  • What foods do I typically eat to avoid certain emotions?
  • What are other activities I could do instead of eating?

Treating Eating Patterns and Mental Health

Lompoc Valley Medical Center offers a variety of treatment options for overcoming emotional eating and managing mental health. Visit our provider's page at lompocvmc.com to schedule an appointment today.

Lauren Hogan
Written by
Lauren Hogan
LVMC Dietetic Intern