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Emotional eating is when we eat, not out of hunger or out of nourishment, but as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, or loneliness. Many people can turn to food as a source of comfort when they are triggered by daily hassles or by major life events. The emotional eating cycle looks like this:

🡪 An event happens that upsets you.

🡪 You feel an overwhelming urge to eat.

🡪 You are not actually physically hungry, however, you eat more than you should and / or you eat the wrong type of foods.

🡪 You are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and powerless over food.

🡪 You feel really bad now. This now becomes an upsetting event on its own and the emotional eating cycle begins again. Meanwhile, the underlying problem or way of dealing with problems is never addressed.



When you have chronic stress in your life, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol often triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods. These foods will often give you a short-term burst of energy and pleasure. This may act like a quick band-aid of relief, however it does not solve the real problem.


Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You may be feeling unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from any underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction in your life.


Eating can be a way to temporarily silence, avoid, or shove down any of our uncomfortable emotions. These emotions include anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. Food can serve as a temporary relief or as a way to numb difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.


Getting together with other people for a meal is incredibly enjoyable and at times it can lead us to overeat. In social settings you may overindulge out of obligation not to offend, pressure to have just another slice, out of nervousness, or simply because the food is there and everyone else is eating. When you are in social settings, notice if you emotionally eat for whatever reason.


When you were growing up, did your family give food out as a prize? Our family patterns can cause us to view food as a way to reward and indulge ourselves when we would like to celebrate something or to relieve a problem. Habits of treating ourselves to pizza, cake, ice-cream, and nachos can often carry over into our adulthood.


When negative emotions trigger you, use these strategies to control cravings:


Distinguish between emotional and physical hunger

Is your hunger physical or emotional? Here are a few clues to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger.

Emotional hunger:

  • Comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant. It feels overwhelming and urgent. With physical hunger, the urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire nor does it demand that same instant satisfaction (unless it’s been a long time since you last ate).

  • Craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy foods. Emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks to provide that instant rush. You feel like you need French fries, ice cream, pizza or cheesecake. Nothing else will do!

  • Leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, that entire bag of chips or pint of ice cream has vanished. You were barely even paying attention or fully enjoying it and now it’s gone! However, when you are feeding your physical hunger, you are more aware of what you’re doing.

  • Causes feelings of regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you are fueling your body. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you are not eating for nutritional reasons.

Keep a food / mood journal.

Write down it all down - what you ate (or what you wanted to eat), what happened that upset you, and how you felt when you ate. Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a certain critical friend. Do you emotionally eat when you have relational conflicts? When you’re tired, or bored, or have tight deadlines to meet? Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, learn to find healthier ways to feed your feelings.


  • De-stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, do some deep breathing, get a massage on a regular basis, exercise, do some stretching, or write in your journal.

  • Combat boredom. Instead of snacking when you're not hungry, distract yourself with a healthier behavior. Take a walk, listen to music, read, find something entertaining on YouTube, call a friend, or take up a new hobby.

  • What do you really need? Name it! Are you feeling sad, and what you really need is comfort? Are you feeling stressed and what you need is peace and calm? Do you feel lonely and need connection? Are you feeling insecure and need a dose of confidence? What are healthier ways to get your deeper needs met rather than covering it up with food?


  • Take away temptation - Don't keep the foods in your home that are hard for you to resist. It’s also a good idea not to go grocery shopping when you are hungry, stressed or depressed.

  • Eat slower, and … wait. - Our body needs some time to digest and signal to us that it’s full. It can take 20 minutes from the time we start eating until we actually feel full.

  • Exercise – Physical activity is a wonderful mood enhancer and a stress reducer which can curb emotional eating.

  • Proper sleep – Being sleep deprived makes you crave sugary and fatty foods, while upsetting your hunger hormones. Getting plenty of rest helps appetite control and reduces cravings.

  • Relax – Make some time each day to relax, decompress, unwind, and recharge your batteries.

  • Snack healthy - If you feel the urge to eat between meals, have some healthy snacks on hand, such as fresh fruit, vegetables and dip, nuts or cottage cheese.


  • Engage with others. In your emotional time of need, reach out to people rather than going into social isolation with Mr. Ben & Jerry. Don’t underestimate the importance of close relationships and social activities. Spending time with positive people who enhance your life will ease the negative effects of stress.

  • Get support. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group. You're more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network.

  • Give yourself compassion. After a binge episode, we can beat ourselves up. However, negative self-talk will only keep you in this cycle. Accept that, okay, while that may not have been the best move, not everyone acts from their best self at all times. Commit to do better in the future.


  • Learn from your setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself. Learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Ask yourself “What can I learn from this? What need was I really trying to feed? How can I meet this need next time?” Focus on the positive changes that you are making in your eating habits and give yourself credit.

  • Know when to get professional help. - If you still can't control emotional eating, consider working with a professional. Therapy can help you uncover if you have an eating disorder, help you understand the roots of emotional eating, and teach you a variety of coping skills.


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