Do you race to the pantry when you feel down or otherwise upset? You’re not alone. It’s common for people to turn to food for comfort as a way to cope with big, difficult feelings.
When you eat in response to emotions, it’s called emotional eating. Everyone does it sometimes.
Our bodies need food to survive. It makes sense that eating lights up the reward system in the brain and makes you feel better.
When emotional eating happens often, and you don’t have other ways to cope, it can be a problem.
Although it may feel like a way to cope in those moments, eating doesn’t address the true issue. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, bored, lonely, sad, or tired, food won’t fix those feelings.
Managing emotional eating can be complicated.
Food is at the center of so many things that we do. Food is part of our celebrations. Making food for someone going through a rough time is a way to show you care. Sharing food with others is a way to connect.
It’s natural to have an emotional connection to food.
The goal is to allow you to make a conscious decision about when, what, and how you eat. There will be times when it makes sense for food to be part of dealing with big emotions. For other times, there are better ways to cope.
Almost anything can trigger a desire to eat. Common external reasons for emotional eating may include:
- work stress
- financial worries
- health issues
- relationship struggles
People who follow restrictive diets or have a history of dieting are
Other potential internal causes
- lack of introspective awareness (realizing how you feel)
- alexithymia (lack of ability to understand, process, or describe emotions)
- emotion dysregulation (inability to manage emotions)
- reversed hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) stress axis (under-active cortisol response to stress)
Emotional eating is often an automatic behavior. The more that food is used to cope, the more established the habit becomes.
Is emotional eating an eating disorder?
Emotional eating on its own is not an eating disorder. It can be a sign of disordered eating, which may lead to developing an eating disorder.
Disordered eating can include:
- being very rigid with food choices
- labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
- frequent dieting or food restriction
- often eating in response to emotions rather than physical hunger
- irregular meal timing
- obsessive thoughts about food that start to interfere with the rest of your life
- feelings of guilt or shame after eating foods you view as “unhealthy”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, eating disorders are diagnosed when a person’s eating behaviors meet certain criteria. Many people have disordered eating behaviors but don’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder.
You don’t need to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to seek help. You deserve to have a good relationship with food.
If you think you may have disordered eating behaviors, speak with a mental health professional or registered dietitian.
There are many reasons why eating becomes a way to cope. Difficult emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void.
We also develop habits and routines with food. If you always eat when stressed, you might reach for food at the first sign of stress without realizing it.
On top of that, food is legal, and you can get it everywhere. Messages and images about food can increase your feeling of hunger.
Emotional eating can affect anyone. People of all genders, ages, and life stages can experience emotional eating. It can become a problem if a person doesn’t have other ways to cope.
Humans must eat to live. It’s natural to need food and to desire certain tastes or textures.
You may wonder how to tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger cues. It can be tricky. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both.
If you haven’t eaten for several hours, or generally don’t eat enough in a day, you are more likely to experience emotional eating.
Here are some clues to help you tell the difference.
|Physical hunger||Emotional hunger|
|Develops slowly over time||Comes on suddenly|
|Feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating||Do not notice fullness, or it does not prevent you from wanting to eat more|
|Tied to the last time you ate||Triggered by the need for comfort or soothing|
How to know if you’re an emotional eater
People who experience emotional eating may feel:
- out of control around certain foods
- an urge to eat when they feel powerful emotions
- an urge to eat even when they are not physically hungry
- like food calms or rewards them
Physical and emotional hunger can be easily confused, but there are some key differences. Emotional hunger is often urgent and tied to your feelings. Physical hunger can come on more gradually and be tied to the last time you ate.
It can be hard to change a habit like emotional eating, but it is possible. Below are some ways to help you cope.
Start an emotion diary
The more you understand your habits, the better. Eating in response to emotion can happen automatically. The more you understand how you feel when you do certain things, the better your chance at changing things.
Try keeping a record of those times when you eat but are not physically hungry. Make a note of:
- what was happening
- how you were feeling
- any emotions you noticed when you got the urge to eat
You may also want to include a place to write what you did. Did you eat right away? Did you wait a few minutes? Did you do something to distract yourself?
Try not to judge yourself on your findings. Try to be genuinely curious about what is happening when you eat in response to emotions.
This takes a lot of practice. Be kind to yourself as you start to explore. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Find other ways to cope
Once you have more information about the emotions, situations, or thoughts that can trigger eating, you can start to make changes.
If you notice that you always eat when you feel stressed, it’s the stress that needs attention. Think about some things you can do to better relieve your stress.
If you notice you eat when you’re bored, consider ways to manage your boredom. What else could you do to fill your time?
It takes time and practice to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other activities. Experiment with different things to find what works for you.
Move your body
Moving your body can be a powerful way to manage stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment you are in. If you find that stress, low mood, or anxiety are triggers for your eating, mindfulness practices may help.
Here are some examples of mindfulness practices:
- sitting quietly and focusing on your breath
- doing a body scan to notice any areas of tension and purposefully relaxing them
- listen to a guided meditation
- focus on the things around you and name a few things that you can taste, smell, see, touch, and hear
Mindful eating is a way of eating that relies on internal cues to make decisions about food. Mindful eating is an effective way to improve your relationship with food and is associated with psychological well-being.
It’s a way to fully experience the act of eating. It encourages you to slow down and be more aware of the food’s appearance, smells, flavors, textures, and sounds.
Mindful eating is about pausing before eating to fully explore what is needed at that moment. Is it food? If so, what type of food? If not food, what will meet this need?
It takes patience and time to learn to be a mindful eater. If it’s something you want to learn more about, consider working with a dietitian who has experience with mindful or intuitive eating.
Get enough to eat
We know that emotional and physical hunger can be very different things. But making sure you are getting enough to eat is an important background habit.
Our brains are wired to make sure we eat enough for survival. You may notice that you get more cravings later in the day if you haven’t eaten enough that day.
Many people find that eating a variety of foods with their meals is the most satisfying. You can experiment to see what meals are most filling for you.
Protein sources include:
- meat, poultry, fish, seafood
- dairy products
- soy beverage, tofu, tempeh
- beans and lentils
- nuts and seeds
Notice your appetite
If you’ve been off and on diets for much of your life, it can be hard to tune into your hunger and fullness cues. It can take some practice to start to notice what physical hunger and fullness actually feel like.
Being aware of physical hunger cues can help you notice when you are eating for emotional reasons.
Some signs of physical hunger include:
- stomach grumbling
- feeling lightheaded or shaky
- a drop in energy level
- difficulty focusing
- changes in mood
- increase in thoughts about food
If you’d like to reconnect with your hunger and fullness, picture your hunger on a scale of one to ten.
Level one is extreme hunger. You may feel physically unwell, weak, and ready to grab anything that might be edible. Ten is extreme fullness, like after a giant holiday meal.
Make a point to check in with yourself every few hours and ask yourself what your hunger level is. This can help you to notice your natural patterns of hunger and fullness.
As you get more practice, you may start to notice some of the early signs of hunger. It can also help you identify when you feel like eating but are not physically hungry.
Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. Those are tough feelings to navigate on your own. Even a quick phone call to a friend or family member can do wonders for your mood. There are also formal support groups that can help.
Overeaters Anonymous is an organization that addresses overeating from emotional eating, compulsive overeating, and eating disorders. You can explore their website to see if this feels like it would be a good fit for you.
Consider getting extra help from professionals.
Look for a dietitian with experience supporting people with emotional or disordered eating. They can help you identify eating triggers and find ways to manage them.
A mental health professional can help you find other ways to cope with difficult emotions as you move away from using food. They often use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Schedule your meals
CBT for emotional eating often includes behavioral strategies, such as eating regular meals at a planned time. Scheduling your meals can help curb physical hunger. The sense of feeling full may also help curb emotional hunger.
Planning your meals may help keep you in a colder or neutral state.
Scheduling your meals doesn’t mean you need to prep a week’s worth of food. Instead, consider building a weekly meal plan that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack. Then, decide what time you will eat each meal. For instance:
|Meal||Day of the week||Time|
|Breakfast||Monday – Friday||7:00 a.m.|
|Snack||Monday – Friday||10:30 a.m.|
|Lunch||Monday – Friday||2:00 p.m.|
|Dinner||Monday – Friday||6:00 p.m.|
|Breakfast||Saturday & Sunday||9:00 a.m.|
|Lunch||Saturday & Sunday||12:00 p.m.|
|Snack||Saturday & Sunday||3:00 p.m.|
|Dinner||Saturday & Sunday||6:30 p.m.|
If you experience an intense desire to eat, think about your next scheduled meal. It may only be a half hour away. Ask yourself if you can wait to eat.
Try not to schedule meals too close to bedtime, and keep all of your meals within a 12-hour window, like 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. This means you should eat a meal about every 3 hours.
If you are eating while you’re working or watching TV, your brain misses out on the full eating experience. If possible, give food your full attention when you eat. This can increase the enjoyment you get from the food.
When you feel satisfied, you may be less likely to seek out something else afterward.
When you are distracted, you are also more likely to eat faster. It takes time for your stomach to let your brain know you’re full. If you’re a fast eater, you may be eating more than what your body needs before your brain can tell you to stop.
Work on positive self-talk
Try to become more aware of the stories you are telling yourself. It may be helpful to write down some of the repeated negative thoughts you are having.
Remember that you don’t have to believe everything your brain tells you. Get curious about where these thoughts might be coming from.
Once you are more aware of all the negative thoughts that show up, you can start to work on changing them. Make notes on how you could change the way you talk to yourself. Consider how you would talk to a dear friend and use that language with yourself.
Here are a few examples:
|I’m terrible at my job.||Everyone has challenges with their work. What can I do to feel more confident at my job?|
|I overate again. I’ll never be able to change!||I wonder why that happened again.|
|I can’t believe I messed up again.||We all make mistakes. I can view this as a learning opportunity.|
Food may feel like a way to cope but addressing the feelings that trigger hunger is important in the long term. Work to find alternative ways to deal with stress, like exercise and peer support. Consider mindfulness practices.
Change is hard work, but you deserve to feel better. Making changes to your emotional eating can be an opportunity to get more in touch with yourself and your feelings.
Emotional eating can be part of disordered eating. Disordered eating behaviors can lead to developing an eating disorder. You don’t need to have a diagnosed eating disorder to seek help.
If you are feeling uncomfortable with your eating, reach out for support. It’s brave to ask for help if you are struggling.
You can talk with your healthcare professional about your concerns. You can also connect with a mental health professional or a dietitian to help you address both the physical and mental sides of emotional eating.