Emotional Eating

by Nikki Yankee, MS LMFT

What is the difference between emotional eating vs. eating for hunger? How can we prevent emotional eating from getting out of control? Usually, emotional hunger feels sudden and urgent, where physical hunger tends to come on gradually. Emotional hunger causes a specific craving, like pizza or chips; physical hunger can generally be satisfied with any food. When we emotionally eat, we tend to eat too much leaving us with feelings of guilt which end up making us feel worse after the temporary 'high' from the food has worn off. 

Why Do We Emotionally Eat?

Emotional eating can be linked to our biology. When we don't get enough sleep or when we are overly stressed, our body produces hormones that cause us to crave fatty, sugary, and high carbohydrate foods. In return, these foods make us feel temporarily alert and excited. 

Numbing negative feelings or maintaining good feelings can be a primary factor for many individuals who emotionally eat. Eating can be distracting, and lots of people find it easier to avoid dealing with difficult emotions with their favorite 'comfort food'. Likewise, food can also be used to maintain or achieve a good feeling. Did you grow up with food symbolizing love or achievement? Perhaps home baked cookies or a big dinner out meant a 'job well done' or 'you are special'. In the way that love is demonstrated through food, we begin to subconsciously believe that we love ourselves through treating ourselves to food we enjoy. The opposite can also be true. We begin to feel that if we ‘deprive’ ourselves from eating a particular food, we are being punished or are somehow unworthy of love. 

To make it harder, the entertainment and media industry are constantly sending false and unhealthy messages about food. It becomes increasingly difficult to make wise, informed decisions about what to put into our bodies. Additionally, as technology has boomed over the last decade with tablets, smart phones, and hand-held gaming devices, we become less able to tolerate boredom and fill the void with food.

How Do We Stop Emotionally Eating?

Thankfully, we can break the cycle of emotionally eating! It takes practice and finding creative ways to successfully calm and soothe yourself. 

As a therapist, I use a form of treatment called Cognitive-behavioral therapy to help individuals overcome problems such as emotional eating. CBT takes a look at how our thoughts and feelings influence behavior and the triggers behind the emotional eating. Many times people have become so entrenched in negative or irrational thoughts surrounding their triggers, their don't even realize it. 

Break the cycle of associating food, particularly unhealthy foods, with certain forms of 'self-talk'. The voice in your head might be 'feeding' you bad information! For example: If someone offers you a piece of cake - rather than think "If I say 'no' the person will be offended or hurt" Think,"If I say no, it's not a big deal!" or "Hmm, what do I want to eat tonight? I had a rough day at work, so I am going to treat myself to lasagna. I deserve it." Think instead, "Hmmm, what should I eat tonight? I had a rough day at work so I am going to get to bed a little earlier. I am going to make a dinner I can be proud to say is healthy! I may not be able to control my bad day at work, but I can make sure to fuel my body with healthy food!" 

It can be helpful to keep track of the times when you notice you are emotionally eating and be mindful of the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. By doing this, we begin working to sharpen the awareness to the triggers and reinforce more positive, rational self-talk, resulting in less impulsive behavior.

I also believe it is fundamentally important to support ourselves through healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise, drinking enough water, getting adequate sleep, practicing time management, and setting aside time to pamper yourself.

To learn more great tips, check out this helpful article!