Do you find yourself racing to the pantry when you’re feeling down or otherwise upset? Finding comfort in food is common, and it’s part of a practice called emotional eating.

People who emotionally eat reach for food several times a week or more to suppress and soothe negative feelings. They may even feel guilt or shame after eating this way, leading to a cycle of excess eating and associated issues, like weight gain.

What causes someone to eat because of their emotions?

Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles may be the root cause of your emotional eating.

It’s an issue that affects both sexes. But according to different studies, emotional eating is more common with women than with men.

Why food?

Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.

Other factors include:

  • retreating from social support during times of emotional need
  • not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
  • not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
  • using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
  • changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.

Summary

Emotional eating affects both men and women. It may be caused by a number of factors, including stress, hormonal changes, or mixed hunger cues.

Emotional hunger vs. true hunger

Humans must eat to live. So, you may wonder how to distinguish between emotional cues and true hunger cues. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several differences that might help clue you in to what you’re experiencing.

Physical hungerEmotional hunger
It develops slowly over time.It comes about suddenly or abruptly.
You desire a variety of food groups.You crave only certain foods.
You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating.You may binge on food and not feel a sensation of fullness.
You have no negative feelings about eating.You feel guilt or shame about eating.
 

Summary

Physical and emotional hunger may be easily confused, but there are key differences between the two. Pay attention to how and when your hunger starts as well as how you feel after eating.

How to stop emotional eating

Emotional hunger isn’t easily quelled by eating

While filling up may work in the moment, eating because of negative emotions often leaves people feeling more upset than before. This cycle typically doesn’t end until a person addresses emotional needs head on.

Find other ways to cope with stress

Discovering another way to deal with negative emotions is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating. This could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day.

It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you.

Move your body

Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. A walk or jog around the block or a quickie yoga routine may help in particularly emotional moments.

In one study, participants were asked to engage in eight weeks of yoga. They were then assessed on their mindfulness and insightful understanding — basically their understanding of themselves and of situations surrounding them.

The results showed that regular yoga may be a useful preventative measure to help diffuse emotional states such as anxiety and depression.

Try meditation

Others are calmed by turning inward to practices like meditation.

There are a variety of studies that support mindfulness meditation as a treatment for binge eating disorder and emotional eating.

Simple deep breathing is meditation that you can do almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath — slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils.

You can browse sites like YouTube for free guided meditations. For example, Jason Stephenson’s “Guided Meditation for Anxiety & Stress“ has over 4 million views and goes through a series of visualization and breathing exercises for more than 30 minutes.

Start a food diary

Keeping a log of what you eat and when you eat it may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. You can jot down notes in a notebook or turn to technology with an app like MyFitnessPal.

While it can be challenging, try to include everything you eat — however big or small — and record the emotions you’re feeling in that moment.

Also, if you choose to seek medical help about your eating habits, your food diary can be a useful tool to share with your doctor.

Eat a healthy diet

Making sure you get enough nutrients to fuel your body is also key. It can be difficult to distinguish between true and emotional hunger. If you eat well throughout the day, it may be easier to spot when you’re eating out of boredom or sadness or stress.

Still having trouble? Try reaching for healthy snacks, like fresh fruit or vegetables, plain popcorn, and other low-fat, low-calorie foods.

Take common offenders out of your pantry

Consider trashing or donating foods in your cupboards that you often reach for in moments of strife. Think high-fat, sweet or calorie-laden things, like chips, chocolate, and ice cream. Also postpone trips to the grocery store when you’re feeling upset.

Keeping the foods you crave out of reach when you’re feeling emotional may help break the cycle by giving you time to think before noshing.

Pay attention to volume

Resist grabbing a whole bag of chips or other food to snack on. Measuring out portions and choosing small plates to help with portion control are mindful eating habits to work on developing.

Once you’ve finished one helping, give yourself time before going back for a second. You may even want to try another stress-relieving technique, like deep breathing, in the meantime.

Seek support

Resist isolation in moments of sadness or anxiety. 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 other eating disorders.

Your doctor may give you a referral to a counselor or coach who can help you identify the emotions at the route of your hunger. Find other groups in your area by searching on social sites like Meetup.

Banish distractions

You may find yourself eating in front of the television, computer, or some other distraction. Try switching off the tube or putting down your phone the next time you find yourself in this pattern.

By focusing on your food, the bites you take, and your level of hunger, you may discover that you’re eating emotionally. Some even find it helpful to focus on chewing 10 to 30 times before swallowing a bite of food.

Doing these things gives your mind time to catch up to your stomach.

Work on positive self-talk

Feelings of shame and guilt are associated with emotional eating. It’s important to work on the self-talk you experience after an episode — or it may lead to a cycle of emotional eating behavior.

Instead of coming down hard, try learning from your setback. Use it as an opportunity to plan for the future. And be sure to reward yourself with self-care measures — taking a bath, going for a leisurely walk, and so on — when you make strides.

Summary

Food may help ease emotions initially, but addressing the feelings behind the hunger is important in the long term. Work to find alternative ways to deal with stress, like exercise and peer support, and try practicing mindful eating habits.

When to see your doctor

It’s hard work, but try looking at your emotional eating as an opportunity to get more in touch with yourself and your feelings.

Taking the process day by day will eventually lead to a better understanding of yourself, as well as toward the development of more healthy eating habits.

Left unaddressed, emotional eating may lead to binge eating disorder or other eating disorders.

It’s important to see your doctor if you feel you’re eating patterns are out of your control. Your doctor may refer you to a counselor or dietitian to help address both the mental and physical side of emotional eating.