Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It

If you’ve ever come home after a tough day at work, only to finish an entire slab of chocolate. Or gone through a tub (or few) of ice cream after a break up, then you have experienced emotional eating.

Emotional eating happens when you deal with your emotions (most often negative) by eating food. The problem is, after the first few minutes, it doesn’t actually help you feel any better. Most often you will feel worse after over-indulging. And if it is something you do regularly, then it could also end up affecting your health.

I know this is a very common issue for many women. I struggle with it a lot myself, and is something I am constantly working on. (My weakness? Potatoes. In any form. Fried, mashed, as chips or crisps – they are my comfort food.)

If you struggle with emotional eating – or you suspect that you do – here are some things that can help you figure out how to identify emotional eating, its effects, and some tips on what you can do to conquer it.

What causes emotional eating?

Major changes in circumstances, relationships, work dynamics, daily stress, and general feelings of a loss of control can be major factors. For example, a recent break up could drive you to emotional eating. A sudden change in the behaviour of a  normally friendly coworker could leave you feeling alienated, or the daily ebb and flow of life’s daily activities could put you in mood where food is thought of as a reward, a way to relieve stress, or way to avoid dealing with emotions surrounding a situation.  

emotional eating junk food

How do you detect emotional eating?

There are a few differences between the type of hunger that comes from emotional needs, and that of physical needs. Physical hunger is gradual, and eating fulfills the need for nourishment. When you eat after having been physically hungry, you will most likely feel better or more energized. When the hunger is emotional hunger, eating may not give you the feeling of being filled, which can lead to overeating. At the end of the meal, you might feel tired, or depressed, but there are even more long term effects that can come from emotional eating. 

 

How can emotional eating affect you?

Along with the emotional effects already mentioned, there are a number of health risks associated with emotional eating. It is one of the leading causes of failed diets and weight gain. Weight gain puts a heavy strain on organs such as the heart, lungs, and liver, which can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes.

But, not only internal organs are at risk. Someone who has gained a substantial amount of weight faces an increased risk of joint injuries of all types. A slip or fall could result in a serious injury that requires surgery, and many months of healing.

 

What can you do?

One of the most commonly-used methods of determining the source of hunger is the food test. Ask yourself if you want to eat this food, or if there is something else you can eat instead. You can also try habit replacement. Find something positive to do when you feel stressed out. Exercise, deep breathing, or any stress relieving hobby can go a long way to improving your control. 

 

Signs of Emotional Overeating

Emotional overeating is one of the leading causes of failed diets and weight gain. This can lead to feelings of failure, hopelessness, and a general depression. Unhealthy eating habits often lead to negative physical effects as well.

 

Food Cravings Appear Out of Nowhere

Physical hunger is most often experienced as gradually intensifying waves signifying that the body requires a form of sustenance. Sometimes it is possible that there is a deficiency of one or more nutrients, but one of the most telling signs of emotional overeating is the sudden, and urgent appearance of food cravings. During these urgent cravings, you are less likely to make healthy food choices, such as fast food, processed snack foods, prepackaged, or otherwise artificial food sources rather than eating healthier traditionally prepared meals.

 

Your Emotions Drive Your Eating Habits

Mood can affect the speed, and way we eat. Do you sometimes notice that a negative situation can send you running to your car to get comfort food? In times of intense emotional upheaval, it can easily become a habit to turn to food for emotional management. That cookie or ice cream might feel good while you’re eating it, but it isn’t truly fixing the heart of the issue. 

Many people are conditioned from a young age to associate food with some sort of reward or good times. This can also cause emotional eating – but for good feelings, rather than negative feelings.

 

You Eat While Stressed

Another big sign that that could show that you are emotionally overeating is that you are eating while stressed. Any changes in life large or small can cause some stress. Deteriorating financial health is considered to be a leading cause of stress in many countries around the world, so it is possible that financial stress could lead to comfort eating.

Relationships are also a major source of stress due to the tendency for relationships to experience inevitable changes in dynamics. This could be anything from romantic relationships to work relationships. People tend to expect routine, so when relationship changes occur, one or both people can be thrown into a state of uncertainty. 

 

You Keep Eating Past Being Full

One of the most serious of the signs of emotional overeating, is eating past being full. This is when the need to fill the emotional void exceeds the body’s natural feeling of fullness. It can manifest itself in joyless eating, which is eating on autopilot. During this period you might consume empty calories so quickly that you don’t even taste the food.

You may also find yourself forcing the second half of a meal you could have saved for later, or buying additional snack foods that you will be tempted to eat when you aren’t even hungry. 

Dangers of Emotional Eating

There a number of unhealthy habits that can develop over time if eating activities aren’t monitored closely. One very easy unhealthy habit to fall into is emotional eating. This can go unnoticed because it’s not widely thought of as dangerous compared to life threatening habits such as illegal drug use, and many say they can simply “exercise more later”.

But can eating habits really be a danger to you? The short answer is – yes, they can.

 

You Tend to Eat Unhealthy Food

Emotional eating usually hits very suddenly out of nowhere and seeks out specific cravings to be filled. Often times these powerful cravings are for sugar and fat filled snacks because of the powerful rush that is experienced after eating them.

Seeking out comfort food or food that is connected with positive or nostalgic feelings has been common practice for people all throughout recorded history. Many snack foods (especially candy and baked goods) are associated with memories of fun times or loved ones. Some children develop early obesity when they learn this type of self soothing.

The methods that are used to produce foods of these types typically contain high levels of salt, sugars, fats and preservative agents. 

 

It is an Unhealthy Way to Cope with Emotions

Emotional eating is often used as a way to avoid dealing with complex emotions. Not every trigger will be the same for each person, but these could include a range of emotions and feelings including anxiety, boredom, loneliness, disgust, sadness, and even joy.

The emotional danger is the continued neglect of the real reasons behind these emotions.

A feeling of shame or guilt might follow binges. This is especially true when the behavior is hidden from friends or family. If you are using eating as a way to escape or distract yourself emotionally, a vicious cycle can develop. For example, if you use food to cope with stress, it will create a paradox when a weight-related health issue arises, and your chosen coping method is food. 

 

There are Weight-Related Health Risks

Emotional overeating can cause devastating health problems. Beyond the difficulties surrounding obesity, these could include other health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, anxiety, malnutrition, digestive problems, menstrual problems, and depression.

If you are overeating and appear to be experiencing any of these symptoms or health problems, emotional eating is likely to be a significant factor. Heart disease and diabetes can also weaken the organs and immune system, leaving you susceptible to infectious disease as well.

 

How to Find Your Triggers

Most people are well acquainted with the knowledge that overeating is unhealthy and can make you vulnerable to various complications, but where do you go to learn what causes lead to these habits? Here, we will look at some of the factors that trigger emotional eating, and will share some tips on how you can avoid these triggers.

 

Trigger Foods

Some foods trigger powerful cravings and memories that can send you into a state where you don’t consider what you are putting in their body. Strong emotional, or cultural, identification with specific foods can begin at an early age, so these habits can become very deeply embedded into an individual’s identity.

Marketing research companies spend billions of dollars learning how to connect the emotions of the consumer to their products, so thinking about the kinds of food you consider are very important. One extremely effective tool that you can use to help you find out what is happening with your eating habits, is to begin keeping a journal. 

 

Trigger Emotions

As you write what kind of foods you eat, it’s also good to make a note of how you’re feeling at the time of the craving.

Strong emotions of any kind can affect how you chose to go about your eating habits during meal time, and it’s important to note that they can be both positive and negative emotions.

When you are emotionally eating, it frees your mind of the burden of focusing on your issues and allows for an escape. It can also provide a pleasurable experience that allows the eater a feeling of being rewarded. Studies have shown that food can light up the same areas of the brain that react in drug addiction, so that means that serious thought and planning must go into combating these habits. 

 

Trigger Environments

Last, and certainly not least is your environment. This can cover a wide variety of variables such as who you are spending time with, where you are located, and what kinds of events are taking place. Some people find public situations highly stressful, while some others may find alone time to be stressful.

Overeating often takes place when the subject is alone, but every case is different. This is another reason why keeping a journal can be very helpful, because it enables and empowers you to take an honest look at your triggering factors.

Recording this information can expose a pattern and help you overcome the difficult habit of emotional eating. 

Tips For Putting a Stop To Emotional Eating

People often say that the first step to conquering any habit is recognizing that there is a problem, but what can you do to change or stop the behavior? 

 

Take Notes

As I mentioned above, one very effective way to find out the what, where, and when of emotional eating is to begin a process of keeping a journal. Much of the drives to engage in emotional eating are subconscious, so keeping a journal will be a powerful tool in discovering what the circumstances or experiences may be that lead to a session of emotional eating.

Write down every time you decide to eat. During the note taking, document details of the events by asking yourself questions. How hungry were you on a scale of 1 – 10? Where were you when the eating took place. Were you at work, school, home or out in public? Were you with friends, loved ones, coworkers or alone?

You might be surprised to find that subtle, yet visible patterns emerge.

 

Take Action

After you’ve spent some time taking notes, compiling information, and asking yourself key questions, you may find what some of the major triggering events might be. If you have asked yourself the questions and found that you were less than a 6 in hunger, and cravings appear during specific situations, you could be stress eating.

One of the easiest ways to quit almost any habit is to simply replace the unhealthy behavior with healthy behavior.

For example, you can keep healthy, low calorie snacks like almonds handy. There are also some delicious teas which contain nutrients that help curb hunger, aid metabolic function, and a few – like black tea – are known to lower stress hormones by nearly half during consumption. 

 

Take Care 

Alternatively, other methods such as exercise and deep breathing can be very effective in managing stress in the moment, or at the end of your day.

Shallow breathing has been found to increase stress in the body, so spending the time to allow your body a chance to concentrate on breathing can lead to many health benefits.

Exercise and breathing go hand in hand, so a healthy regimen can go a long way to putting you on the path to success.