As humans, we experience a range of emotions. Some of these emotions can leave us wanting to eat, such as feeling upset or sad, as well as positive emotions like happiness and excitement. Even neutral emotions such as boredom can lead us to eat as a response. Emotional eating (EE) itself is normal and there is nothing wrong with using food to help manage certain emotions on occasions. However, it can become an issue if we find ourselves using food as the first and main way to manage emotions, like an automatic response, rather than exploring how else to manage these emotions. Some people can feel guilt or shame from eating to cope with emotions. EE itself can develop into a regular habit, or possibly to an emotional eating disorder.

Book a consultation with an emotional eating specialist dietitian here.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when we eat in response to emotions that we feel. This is something that everyone will experience in their lives. When we eat, it makes us feel good and can bring us pleasure. Therefore, eating in the hope to help sooth an emotion is a normal response. However, if emotional eating happens regularly, or when you struggle to have other ways to manage or cope with the emotions aside from food, this can be a problem for overall health. Often, the foods we choose to eat in response to emotions are higher calorie due to the fat or sugar content, as these nutrients provide us with an immediate pleasure.

When we stop to consider the role that food plays, it does not help to address the real issue and emotion we are feeling. It may give us a temporary distraction, but food is not able to really fix the feeling of sadness or tiredness. This can lead to a cycle of eating to cope with the emotion, and then realising it isn’t long lasting, and then doing it again to get that immediate relief, and this can go on to create feelings of guilt for some.

Emotional Eating Cycle

What causes emotional eating?

There can be many causes behind the desire to eat and the link with emotional eating. It is important to consider what your personal triggers are. It may be certain feelings, environments or habits.

  • Stress can be a big trigger, especially ongoing chronic stress. For some people, stress can make them feel like they want to eat, due to higher levels of cortisol hormone levels. Higher chronic cortisol levels can leave us craving foods that are higher in salts, sugar or fats, to give us that immediate hit of pleasure and reward, to distract us from the stressful feeling. Stress can be work or family related, or perhaps financial worries. It could also be from having certain health conditions that influence our emotions negatively. We choose to eat to avoid feeling the difficult emotion, but that does not help the stress reduce or ease, which is when it can become a cycle.
  • Boredom is also a trigger. To fill in some time or give yourself something to do, food can be a way to fill that void. It occupies you for the brief time, but once it is over, sometimes it can leave us wanting more, which is where this cycle again is repeated.
  • Habit or routine. The more we practice a behaviour, the more likely we will continue using this behaviour, especially if it makes us feel good, even if that is temporary. This then becomes part of our regular habits or routine, and can be linked to certain times of the day. Often these habits can start during childhood, for example if you were rewarded with food for good behaviour, or given a food related treat to help make you feel better after a hard day at school. These habits then stay with us through to adulthood, especially as they can make us feel nostalgic.
  • Influences and environment can lead to eating because of a certain emotion. For example, gathering with friends in a social setting over a meal can lead to overeating, because we are eating with others and the food is there. But we are not really thinking about our hunger cues or if we need to eat at that time or not.
  • Having a history of dieting and disordered eating, looking at food as an escape or to rebel on their diet or strict eating regime. When someone restricts certain foods for so long, they can end up over eating or binging on these foods, when they ‘give in’ to the impulse. This is why restrictive diets can be very harmful to our relationship with food, as it gives us the feeling of guilt or shame when eating certain foods, which can then lead to overeating these foods when we get a chance.

Is emotional eating an eating disorder?

Emotional eating itself is not an eating disorder, but there can be some similarities with having an eating disorder, and EE can lead to the development of having an eating disorder. When we eat in response to a negative emotion, we are aiming to manage this emotion, but it can be a difficult behaviour to control. This itself can be a characteristic of disordered eating, which can overtime develop into an eating disorder.

One emotion often linked to EE is stress. Higher stress levels can lead to higher stress hormone cortisol release, which can lead to increased appetite for some people. This can mean that chronic high stress levels leads to chronicle high cortisol, which then can lead to increased cravings, especially for foods higher in fats and sugars. This can lead to a cycle, which if not controlled, can develop into signs of an eating disorder.

Food can be a way to take control of your life, if you feel other aspects of your life are not going well or you are struggling. Here are some signs that people may experience if their eating habits are developing into an eating disorder:

  • Often eating past the point of content and comfortableness, feeling overly full
  • Eating more quickly than normal when consuming more food than usual
  • Consuming more food than is normal for you in a short space of time
  • Eating in secret or hiding foods from others
  • Feeling a loss of control when over eating
  • Feeling guilt and shame after eating a certain way or eating certain foods

Physical hunger vs. emotional hunger

Understanding the difference between physical or emotional hunger can be difficult, but this table explains the differences between these two states to help you better understand what might be going on:

Physical Hunger

Emotional Hunger

Feel physical sensations, such as stomach rumbling or growling, or feelings of emptiness Sensation of wanting to eat comes with a strong emotion, such as stress, sadness, boredom or joy
Sensations usually come more gradually comes on gradually Hunger comes more rapidly or almost immediate, and can feel quite intense
Physical sensations may be connected to finding it hard to concentrate, or noticing a dip in energy levels or moodiness Sensations are linked to wanting comfort or helping us to relax or be distracted from a certain thought or emotion
No strong desire for specific food, happy to have options Desire for certain foods is often more specific
Are able to wait for a while if you are unable to stop to eat right away Unable to concentrate unless the desire to eat at that moment is met immediately or soon
Able to recognise when you are eating to the point of feeling satisfied, and being able to stop here Not able to stop when feeling satisfied, or not happy to stop eating when content, and can lead to over eating
Does not influence how you feel about yourself after eating Can lead to feelings of guilt or shame when emotionally eating certain foods

 

Generally occurs 4-5 hours after last meal time, or soon after if previous meal was inadequate Does not matter when you last ate, can happen any time

What are the signs of emotional eating?

  • Sudden feelings of hunger or cravings;
    As above, physical hunger takes time to develop, but emotional eating develops much more suddenly, in relation to a certain emotion we may be feeling.
  • Wanting a specific food;
    As well as sudden craving or urge to eat, it is usually paired with the desire to eat a specific food. These foods are often higher in carbohydrates, added sugars or salts, as they can provide us with that immediate feeling of reward and pleasure. Examples include bread or chocolate.
  • Eating more than you need;
    Because you are not physically hungry, it is hard to understand when you have eaten enough to feel satisfied. Overeating is often linked to emotional eating, and this is because eating this way isn’t actually going to satisfy the emotion or fix the issue, so we may then keep eating. It can develop into a cycle or habit, leading to overconsumption of foods, to feel that distraction from whatever emotion someone is trying to move on from.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame;
    If you eat something and then feel shame or guilt from eating this food, this can be a sign of eating due to emotions rather than hunger. This can then lead to further eating to ignore this feeling, which then develops into a cycle.
  • Eating food as a reward;
    To celebrate good news or perhaps making it through a stressful day, we may want to treat ourselves to certain foods that we may not have so often. These are typically foods higher in fats or carbohydrates, and we are not eating due to hunger, but due to the pleasure and to reward ourselves. When this feeling of using food as a reward becomes the only way to feel rewarded, it can be seen as emotional eating.

emotional eating signs

Foods that emotional eaters crave

When we are emotionally eating, foods that are higher in fats, sugars and salts are more appealing. This is because these foods often give us that immediate reward and comfort feeling that we are looking for. Typical foods can include:

  • Chocolate or chocolate based foods
  • Biscuits and sweet snacks
  • Bread and other carbohydrate based foods such as pizza
  • More processed foods such as takeaways or convenience foods

emotional eating foods

Short-term and long-term emotional eating impacts on health

Short term

  • Disrupting hunger signals. Because emotional eating is carried out in the absence of hunger, it can lead to a person ignoring feelings of physical hunger and signs of physical fullness. This overtime, can make it hard to regulate appetite and hunger levels.
  • Guilt and Shame. People may experience feelings of guilt, regret or shame after an episode of emotional eating, which can then further impact their emotions in a negative way.
  • Feeling sluggish or uncomfortable. With emotional eating, often large amounts of foods are consumed. This can cause the person to feel overly full, which can lead to dips in energy and mood, as well as feeling uncomfortable or bloated.
  • Impacts on health markers. Some short term changes when mainly comfort eating can lead to rapid spikes and fluctuations in blood sugars, which can cause energy crashes and mood swings.

Long term

  • Impact on relationship with food. Being in a cycle of regular eating with episodes of emotional eating can impact the way we view certain foods. We may start to believe specific foods are good or bad, and then feel negatively when emotional eating, leading to eating these ‘bad’ foods.
  • Unhealthy management of emotions. Using food as a coping mechanism for stress will only create a cycle of dependancy, especially where there are little to no other techniques being used to manage emotions. This can mean that often the emotion or feeling may not be resolved and may always be difficult to manage, causing further episodes of emotional eating.
  • Development of eating disorders: Long term, continuing to eat emotionally can lead us to want to control other aspects of our lifestyle, which can lead to a restrict and binge cycle. These habits can increase risks of developing patterns regularly found in those with eating disorders.
  • Weight gain. Understandably, emotional eating without addressing the underlying emotional issue can lead to over eating frequently, which in time can lead to weight gain.
  • Weight related health issues. Due to the above, an increase in weight can increase the risk of weight related health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Mental health struggles. With the cycle of emotional eating and combined with weight gain, this can negatively influence body image, which in turn can increase the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. 

How to stop emotional eating?

Keep a diary to recognise triggers and patterns

Keeping a food and mood diary can help you to track patterns behind emotional eating. Every time you have the urge to reach for comfort food, pause for a moment to recognise what might have triggered this urge. this could be something that upset or stressed you previously before you wanted to emotionally eat. Keep a note of what influenced your mood and how you were feeling, how you felt before eating, what you wanted to eat, or what you did eat, and then how you felt whilst eating. Write down how you felt after eating, and overtime, you will notice a pattern. Perhaps this could be eating when you come home from a stressful day working on a deadline, or when you attend certain family events. Once these triggers are identified, it can help to explore other ways to help manage these feelings.

Seek for substitutes

After being able to identify triggers that lead to emotional eating, the next step would be to explore other ways to manage that emotion aside from food. Write a list of ideas or suggestions, that you can use for specific emotions. For example, if you are feeling stressed, are you able to use a 5 minute meditation breathing video to help control your breath? Or perhaps taking a walk to get some fresh air, or playing with your pet. If you are feeling upset, could you call a friend or engage in a hobby that makes you feel good? Perhaps if you are feeling overwhelmed, writing down your thoughts or feelings in a journal can be a good way to better manage your emotion, instead of using food.

Healthy Choices

Emotional and physical hunger are two different types of hunger, but often if we are not meeting our physical hunger needs, this can increase the tendancy to emotionally eat. It is important to ensure that your regular diet is well balanced, to reduce cravings at certain times. For example, if you are someone who regularly skips breakfast but then ends up with cravings towards the latter part of the day, eating breakfast can help to reduce this as you are fuelling your body regularly in the day. Planning ahead with your meals can also help to avoid impulse eating, when you get overly hungry. If you find that you struggle with physical hunger, ensure your meals are high in protein and fibre, as this will help you to feel satisfied and stay full between meals.

Don’t be strict

Trying to restrict yourself of something too much can end up backfiring. We end up craving and thinking of this food even more, when we tell ourselves we should never have it. Instead, allow flexibility in your choices, ensuring that the majority of your food choices are related to balanced meals and snacks, to allow room for those little bits of what you fancy. Eat these mindfully (see below) to feel fully satisfied with the portion you have, and do not let any guilt or shame kick in. All foods can be included in a balanced and healthy diet, it comes down to what you do most of the time that makes the difference.

Meditation

Practicing regular meditation can help us learn to improve our relationship with food, and how better to manage negative emotions without using food first. Regular meditation can work to reduce stress hormone release, which can otherwise be a factor in making us want to comfort eat. This in turn will help us better manage emotions that are related to using food as a source of comfort, by using other coping mechanisms. The act of meditation helps us to practice sitting with the emotion without judgement, instead of using food as a coping mechanism.

Keeping active

When we move our body, this can be a great way to help manage certain emotions such as stress or frustration. Exercise can help to boost endorphin release, which positively influence mood. This can then help reduce the likelihood or urge to comfort eat. Remember that keeping active does not need to involve intense, sweaty workouts. The most important part of exercise is doing something you can enjoy, as you are far more likely to stick to it and use it as a tool. If you are not sure what you enjoy, explore different options such as walks or yoga videos at home, or boxing classes. Even some gentle stretching can positively change the way we feel.

Listening to hunger levels

Pause and check in with your body to see how it feels. Are you getting any signs of physical hunger? This could be from a feeling of emptiness, or perhaps stomach growling or feeling like it’s hard to concentrate. These can be signs that you are hungry, and the next step would be to put together a nourishing and tasty meal to enjoy. Eating until you are around 80% full, or are lightly satisfied, can help you to eat what your body needs in that moment, and feel comfortable, without leaving the table feeling overly full or stuffed. If you do not notice any hunger signals, then think about what else is driving the urge to eat – is it a certain emotion you are feeling? Once identified, you can then look at other coping mechanisms to satisfy this emotion, without using food as the first thought.

Learning mindful eating

When you are thinking of choosing something to eat, try to pause before to ask yourself how you are feeling. Are you truly hungry, or are you wanting to eat something based on an emotion. Mindful eating is where we play close attention to what we eat, and how we eat, to allow ourselves to enjoy the eating experience, and feel satisfied with what we have had. Practice recognising hunger cues, and when you do eat, take the time to savour each mouthful slowly, before taking the next. Try not to eat with too many distractions, as you cannot be truly mindful if you are focusing on something else.

Disconnect at mealtimes

When you eat, try to make it a screen-free time, where there are no phones, tv’s, iPads or video games being played. Instead, this is a time to savour your food, sit at a table where you can relax and eat slowly, and enjoy your own company or the company of those around you. This will allow you to be more focused on the food itself, how does the food make you feel, are you enjoying the meal and are you feeling satisfied? Eating without these distractions will better help you understand when you are starting to feel comfortable and have had enough to eat.

Practice self compassion

When you are making these changes, remember that it will take time and it is not easy. Be kind to yourself and forgive the slip-ups that will be a part of the journey. Reflect and learn what you can do better for the future. Changing habits is for the long term, and you will not always have success at each opportunity.  

Get support

Asking those you live with for support and accountability can be helpful when trying to change your automatic habits. For example, when you get the urge to reach for comfort food, having someone suggest going for a walk or doing an activity together may be helpful to give you another option. This will involve you discussing with those around you how they may be able to support you in times like this.

If you have tried these self help options but are finding that you are still struggling to control your emotional connection with food, you may consider seeing a health professional such as a therapist or dietitian, for further support. They can help you explore deeper the reasons why you may use food to manage emotions and support you with other coping skills. A health professional can also support you if your actions are learning towards having an eating disorder, which may be connected to the emotional side of eating. Seek out support from our team of private dietitians today.

How to prevent emotional eating?

Have a written list of ideas

Spend some time writing down a list of different emotions you may struggle with. This can be frustration or loneliness, stress or anxiety. Give each emotion some thought as to how you may want to try overcoming or working through the emotion, without using food.

For example, for loneliness this can be calling a friend or for frustration this may be to use a specific 5 minute breathing video to help you feel calmer.

This is a physical written list to help give you ideas and support, ahead of when you feel this way. So, when you do struggle with a certain emotion in the future, make sure you are easily able to access this list, identify the emotion, and try one of the coping mechanisms you have previously listed.

Schedule your meals

Having regular meals at planned times can help manage both physical and emotional hunger. This means you will not be left feeling hungry, which in itself can increase risk of emotional eating in the future. You do not need to prep all meals in advance, but have a weekly schedule which includes all your meals, and an idea of what you will be having in each of these meals. Include snacks if you usually have large gaps between meals, to prevent yourself from becoming overly hungry.

Work on positive self-talk

Practicing positive self-compassion can help to retrain how you talk and think about yourself. Write your negative thoughts down, and explore where these thoughts are coming from. Work on how you might challenge these thoughts, to change the way you talk to yourself. Think perhaps of how you would speak to a loved one, and the language used. Practice this more positive and realistic self talk frequently. This in time, can help improve your relationship with food.

Book a consultation with an emotional eating specialist dietitian here.

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