Do you have the sudden urge to gobble down large amounts of sweet or salty foods when feeling overwhelmed or upset? Sometimes you consciously turn to food, while other times, you blink only to find yourself with an empty bag of potato chips in your hand. It’s called emotional eating, and it’s something that we all do on occasion.

In fact, just last week, I caught myself standing in front of the pantry devouring handfuls of goldfish in the middle of a long and stressful day. How did I know it was emotional eating? Well, I was standing, not really tasting the food, and eating quickly. Not exactly what I’d call intuitive eating

There’s nothing wrong with emotional eating every now and then when it’s a conscious choice. However, it can become problematic if it’s frequent or if it’s your only coping method when faced with heavy emotions. If you regularly find yourself impulsively emotionally eating, then you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at emotional eating, how to recognize it, and what to do instead.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating, also referred to as comfort eating, is when you turn to food to deal with emotions like stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, or anger. It’s mindlessly munching on chips at your desk while working on a tight deadline, popping candy in your mouth while stuck in traffic, or eating ice cream late at night when there’s seemingly nothing else to do. You are relying on food to light up the reward system in your brain to make you feel better. 

When your emotions feel like too much to process, you’re more likely to reach for convenience foods, eat large amounts, and eat very quickly. This is because emotional eating is a response to emotional hunger, not physical hunger. Physical hunger cues like a growling stomach or hollow feeling stomach are your body’s way of communicating that it needs more energy to function optimally. On the other hand, emotional hunger drives you to eat in an attempt to soothe difficult emotions, not because your body desires the extra nutrients. 

Food also acts as a distraction to take your mind off the conflict at hand. It’s much easier to reach for food than it is to confront or work through big feelings.

What Causes Emotional Eating?

You may notice that you overeat when overcome with strong, uncomfortable emotions. Common causes of emotional eating include:

  • Financial stress
  • Relationship problems
  • Work issues 
  • Health concerns 

While emotional eating is usually correlated with negative situations, it’s important to know that it can also occur during happy times. Getting married, having children, buying a home, or getting a promotion are exciting yet stressful moments that can trigger emotional eating as well.

Emotional eating can also be done out of habit. When you frequently turn to food for comfort, it becomes your natural response to dealing with uncomfortable feelings. If you habitually engage in emotional eating, you’re likely unaware that you are eating to feel better. 

How Do I Know If I’m Emotional Eating?

You know it’s emotional eating when you are eating as the result of emotional hunger and not physical hunger. In both cases, you want to eat, but there are ways to tell the difference between the two. 

Physical hunger typically comes on gradually. It’s usually a few hours after a satisfying meal when you begin to feel some growing hunger cues. When you are physically hungry, you are more open to eating a variety of different foods to meet your energy needs. You can recognize when you’ve reached a comfortable level of fullness and can stop eating. 

Emotional hunger comes on very suddenly. It doesn’t matter if you just finished a completely balanced meal an hour ago. You tend to want to quickly eat large amounts of sweet or salty carb-heavy foods. The phrase “bottomless pit” comes to mind, as it can seem like no amount of food is enough. 

A big giveaway when I’m emotional eating is that I’m usually standing. I’m almost always standing at the kitchen counter or in front of the pantry or fridge. To me, this signifies that I’m not comfortably eating or enjoying my food. 

Why Does Emotional Hunger Cause Carb Cravings? 

Think about the foods you turn to when you’re eating to feel better. If your emotions leave you reaching for ice cream, crackers, cookies, or chips, there’s actually a reason for it. These foods are all rich in carbohydrates, which lead to the synthesis of serotonin when consumed. 

Serotonin is a feel-good brain chemical that reduces anxiety. These foods really can make you feel better when faced with uncomfortable emotions. Unfortunately, the rewards are short-lived, and you’ll likely feel worse later. The after-effects of emotional eating can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or physical discomfort from overeating. If you’re stuck in the cycle of eating to feel better only to feel worse, it’s time to consider other coping methods. 

Is There An Easy Way to Quit Comfort Eating?

The steps to quit comfort eating are simple but not easy. It takes time to unlearn certain behaviors and replace them with new ones. If you often emotionally eat, your brain is wired to respond to big feelings with food. Rewiring your brain to create new pathways takes practice and patience.

Steps to Quit Comfort Eating 

  1. Become aware of your emotional eating triggers. Do you emotionally eat after work, when money is tight, or after an argument? Triggers can be an environment, situation, or person. If you don’t know your triggers off the top of your head, keep a journal to jot down when you find yourself emotionally eating. 
  2. Brainstorm and write down different coping methods to soothe yourself that don’t involve food. 
  3. Pick 1-2 coping methods for each trigger and try them for a month. For example, you take the dog for a walk after a stressful day at work instead of eating.
  4. Determine if these coping methods are effective or if you need to try something else. If taking the dog for a walk isn’t fulfilling and doesn’t make you feel better, return to your list of coping methods and try again. 
  5. Keep practicing different ways to cope with heavy emotions until you find what works best. This may require some trial and error. 

What To Do Instead Of Emotional Eating (Activities to Replace Comfort Eating)

Breaking down coping strategies into various categories may help you choose which methods appeal most to your personality. I tend to lean on active and expressive skills. I encourage you to brainstorm skills that complement your unique interests. 

Social activities:

  • Call a friend or family member 
  • Volunteer in your community
  • Join a book club 

Active activities:

  • Practice yoga
  • Go for a nature walk 
  • Clean your home

Expressive activities:

  • Paint or draw 
  • Journal
  • Play a musical instrument 

Relaxation activities:

  • Take a warm bath 
  • Meditate
  • Practice deep breathing exercises 

When to Seek Professional Help and From Whom

If you frequently rely on food for comfort and have tried to replace emotional eating with other healthier habits to no avail, it may be time to seek professional help. Everyone comfort eats from time to time, but if it’s disruptive to your life and mental health, then it could be indicative of an eating disorder. A registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating can help you manage and overcome your triggers. They may also refer you to a mental health professional so that you have support from a team of specialists. 

Tips and Advice From an RD For Reducing Comfort Eating

  1. Acknowledge that emotional hunger and comfort eating are normal responses to triggering emotions. Everyone does it sometimes. 
  2. Emotional eating becomes a problem when it is your only coping method for dealing with negative feelings. Solely relying on food to make you feel better will not fix the problems at hand. 
  3. Identify feelings, situations, environments, and people that trigger you to want to eat your feelings. 
  4. Practice rewiring your brain by responding to emotions with other healthy coping activities instead of eating.
  5. If you’re concerned with your emotional eating and having trouble making changes, don’t hesitate to seek support from a registered dietitian or mental health professional.  

Final Thoughts On Dealing With Emotional Eating

Emotional eating may make you feel better in the moment but won’t resolve what’s making you feel stressed or upset. Recognizing the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger can help you determine when you’re craving food to numb your feelings vs. when your body needs more energy. If emotional eating has become your go-to response when uncomfortable emotions arise, it’s time to establish other coping methods. Instead of eating, try reading a book, taking a walk, or practicing deep breathing exercises to help soothe negative feelings. Finally, give yourself grace and be patient with yourself! Rewiring your brain to respond differently to tough emotions is a process, but given the right tools and support you can be more prepared to handle emotions without using food. 

About the Author
Perry Nix, MS, RD, LD

Perry Nix is a Clinical Dietitian and Nutrition Writer. She has experience providing health education in public health, corporate wellness, and clinical settings. Her passion is breaking down complex nutrition information into bite-sized pieces that are easy to digest and apply.

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