If people only ate when their bodies were truly in need of fuel, otherwise known as food, many of us would not become overweight or obese. When we seek food not because of a physical need, but from a desire to make ourselves feel “better” in some way, that is considered emotional eating (EE).

“Normal” weight people eat emotionally on occasion. For proof, look no further than the early days of the pandemic when most of us were confined to home, facing the unknown, and cut-off from normal life experiences. There were shortages of flour and yeast because so many baked or cooked to pass the time and to relieve stress, anxiety, and boredom. The internet was full of stories about the "COVID 20" weight gain directly attributed to the pandemic. EE is certainly often a factor in weight gain, but it also hinders efforts to maintain a healthy weight after successful weight loss.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is using food to comfort yourself, to dull a painful emotion, or to distract yourself from feelings that you don’t feel capable of handling.

What is the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger?

  • Physical hunger comes on gradually. You haven’t eaten for hours and your stomach growls. When you’re physically hungry, you’re open to options so even an apple sounds good. Physical hunger dissipates when you are full, and you don’t feel bad about yourself after eating.
  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, and feels urgent, like it must be satisfied immediately. With EE, there is often a craving for a specific food and a tendency to reach for sweets or other high calorie items. Most of us do not “stress-eat” celery and carrots!
  • EE is often done mindlessly so before you realize it, you’ve eaten the whole bag of cookies or all six slices of left-over pizza.
  • Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once your stomach is full. You want more and may eat until you feel “stuffed.”
  • After eating to satisfy physical hunger, you’re not likely to feel bad but when you eat to satisfy an emotion, you may feel guilty afterwards.

Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate is human. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re upset, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle. Eating feels good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.

And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed. You criticize yourself for not having more “willpower.” Compounding the problem, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight and feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings. 

Are you an emotional eater?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be an emotional eater.

  • Do you eat more when you are worried or anxious?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or feeling full?
  • Do you eat to feel better, to calm yourself when you’re mad, bored, or tired?
  • Do you eat until you feel stuffed? 
  • Does food feel like a best friend?
  • Do you feel out of control around food?
  • Do you eat to reward yourself or to celebrate?

The causes of emotional eating

We often wonder what makes us eat emotionally. One theory is that food helps us to avoid uncomfortable feelings. But there is no one reason that people use food for comfort. Sometimes, there’s a connection between food and emotion that originated in childhood and carries over today.

Think about your grandmother handing you a few Hershey’s Kisses when you were upset. Comfort came in the form of a little silver-wrapped morsel of chocolate and years later, you may still connect a sweet with love and feeling cared for. 

It’s natural to want to understand why we emotionally eat. But remember, if your house was on fire, would you want the fire department to stand outside and try to figure out the origin of the fire or would you want them to get in and put that fire out? There is a parallel… you may not completely understand why you eat emotionally but you can develop tools that can put the fire out regardless of its origin.

How to manage emotional eating

No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make positive changes. There are cognitive behavioral techniques you can learn that can offer healthier ways to deal with emotions, avoid triggers, and conquer cravings. While these techniques may not eliminate emotional eating completely, they may help you reduce its frequency and develop a sense of control over it. These skills give you confidence and a game-plan to address the urges when they arise. 

Ways to reduce emotional eating:

  1. Identify your personal triggers. What situations or feelings get you thinking about food? Remember that EE can also be connected to positive feelings, such as rewarding yourself or celebrating or socializing with food. Stress, boredom, and emptiness are also common triggers. One good way to identify triggers is to keep track with a food and mood log. When you feel like reaching for something, STOP and try to figure out what sparked that urge. Write it down. Since EE is often mindless and automatic, even delaying for a few minutes can interrupt the urge. 
  2. Find other ways to “fill the tank” and care for yourself. What are some alternatives to food that will help you feel better, taken care of, less anxious? How about phoning a friend, taking a bubble bath, playing a sport, dancing, meditating, or listening to your favorite podcast?
  3. Take Five: Don’t tell yourself you can’t have the cookie. Get up, move around, distract yourself and say that you can have it after five minutes if you still want it. In those five minutes, you may very well realize that you’re not hungry at all and that eating the cookie will make you feel worse as soon as it’s gone.
  4. Check up from the neck up. How are you feeling? What is going on? Sometimes that means learning to accept even the “bad” feelings. Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions is not easy but even the most difficult feelings subside and drift out of our minds, just like a cloud that blocks the sun temporarily. 

Being mindful and staying connected to what you feel in that moment can reduce the level of stress associated with those feelings.

If you need help with emotional eating, we are here for you. Visit our website for more information.

Camille Gregorian, LICSW

Camille Gregorian, LICSW

Camille Gregorian, LICSW is a licensed therapist for the Center for Weight and Wellness. She provides individual therapy and weight management support.