Have you ever decided to reach for a tub of ice cream when you were feeling down, had a cheeky takeaway when you were feeling bored, or ordered a pizza after a particularly stressful day at work? I know I have! ☝🏾.
It’s a fact, we need to eat to live. However, sometimes we don’t always eat when we are hungry, but instead we sometimes eat for comfort, to reward ourselves, or as stress relief. Finding comfort in food is really common, and is a part of a well known practise known as emotional eating. This is when we start to eat with the aim of making ourselves feel better and lower negative emotions (1). Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness, and food is used as a way to fill that void and create a feeling of temporary comfort (2). When we feel strong emotions, some of us are more likely to binge eat or graze. This often makes us feel better for the short term, but in the long run makes us feel worse and put on weight.
Common Causes Of Emotional Eating
There are many psychological and biological reasons why we may turn to food for comfort (3). These include:
- Stress — when you are stressed, your body produces high levels of the hormone cortisol (your fight or flight hormone). The high levels of cortisol triggers cravings for junk foods, sweet, salty, and fried foods as our body needs a quick burst of energy to function (to deal with the stressor), which can be obtained by eating these foods (4) (5).
- Suppressing negative emotions — Eating can also be a way to temporarily lower uncomfortable emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. Food is often a coping mechanism for avoiding the difficult emotions that you would rather not feel (6).
- Boredom — Sometimes food can also be used as a way to have something to do (7).
- Habits — Some habits formed during childhood (such as being rewarded with sweets when we were sad, or being rewarded with ice cream when we were good) are often carried over adulthood in the form of emotional eating.
- Social influences — Although eating with friends is a fantastic stress reliever, it can also lead to overeating. There has been evidence to suggest that we tend to overeat when we are in groups (8).
Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger
Distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger takes some getting used to. Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell them apart.
According to Mayo Clinic, the main differences between the two are as follows:
|Comes on suddenly|
|You crave specific foods (i.e. junk foods)|
|You may not feel full even on an full stomach|
|There is a lack no control about how much you eat|
|The hunger is not located in the stomach, it is often a craving you can’t get out of your head|
|There is often a feeling of guilt|
|Comes on gradually over time|
|There is no food preference|
|You stop eating when you are full|
|There is an awareness of how much you have eaten|
|You usually have a hunger pang in your stomach|
|You are unlikely to feel guilty as your body has what it needs|
Beat The Emotional Eating Cycle
Emotional eating occasionally isn’t necessarily a bad thing (i.e. when using food as a reward, as a pick-me up, or to celebrate). It only starts to become an issue when eating is your only way of coping with your emotions (i.e. It is your first impulse to turn to the fridge whenever you are feeling stressed, upset, angry, or bored). With this, you can easily get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem your facing is never addressed.
The real reality is that emotional hunger cannot be filled with food. Eating may feel good during that moment, but the initial feelings that triggered the eating are still there. In addition, the realisation that you are consuming extra calories may add to your negative feelings and make you feel worse than before (9). This may often result in an ongoing cycle of eating, beating yourself up, weight gain, and not fully dealing with your emotions. In the long term, this can make it difficult for you to learn healthier eating habits, or manage your weight.
Although this may be the case, it is important to note that it is not impossible to make a positive change! There are healthier coping mechanisms that you can learn in order to effectively deal with your emotions, avoid triggers, and conquer cravings.
Ways To Stop Emotional Eating
Becoming aware of your triggers is one of the first steps to controlling emotional eating. Once you become aware of these it will be easier to find other ways to deal with negative emotions. One way you can do this is by identifying the situations, places, or feelings that make you reach for food and noting them down in a journal — that way when you are in that situation in the future, you will be able to find strategies to deal with the negative emotion and practise them when the unpleasant emotion strikes. Below are just some strategies that you can use:
Find an alternative distraction
This could mean reading a book, or phoning a friend, taking a shower, or just finding a few minutes to decompress from the day.
Moving your body and performing regular exercise has been proven to boost your mood and make you feel better (10) (11). A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry found that in people with heightened anxiety and depression, taking part in exercise such as walking, running, cycling or swimming for 10 minutes a day greatly boosted their mood and overall well-being (12).
I know that during bouts of depression and anxiety exercising is probably last on your mind, but there is always a way! Home workouts, or even light exercises like dancing in your room are also really fun alternative when you don’t feel like taking part in extensive exercise 😉.
There are a variety of studies that suggest that mindful meditation is an effective treatment for emotional eating (13)(14). Meditation works by helping to increase mindfulness and self awareness, reduces stress, and improve mood (15) (16). There are many apps that provide advice and guidance on meditating effectively. Check out Apps like Calm, and Headspace for guided meditation, as well as Apps such as Catch It, and Chill Panda that also offer help on breathing and provide techniques into managing negative thoughts.
Seek external support
When you are feeling low, reaching out for help is never a bad thing. Reach out to family and friends in times of need, or if you would like to talk to someone outside your immediate circle there are formal support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous, or informal groups such as Meetup that you could try. Alternatively if you would like personalised support, there are charities such as Beat who provide support over the phone, or you could also talk to your GP who may refer you to a counsellor.
Please note — It does take time to train your mind to stop old habits and create new ones, so please don’t be disheartened when you fall into old eating habits from time to time. The key is to experiment with a variety of activities to find the one that is easy for you to stick to.
In the same vein, there may also be times when you really can’t fight the urge, the tips below may help:
Try Healthy Alternatives When Hunger Strikes
When the hunger pang strikes, reaching for healthy snacks like fruit, vegetables, popcorn, and other low-fat, low-calorie foods could help aid in helping you maintain a healthy diet whilst fulfilling your craving. We have previously written an article on healthy food swaps, you can find this here.
Measure your portion sizes when you do eat
When eating, pay attention to the amount of food you are eating as it does make a difference. For instance, rather than eating snacks from the original packaging, pour some into a small bowl to prevent eating more than you need. There has been key evidence to suggest that people tend to eat more out of large packages than small ones (17).
Get rid of the culprit food completely
Getting rid of the foods you often reach for when you are feeling down is also worth considering, as keeping the foods you crave out of reach when you’re feeling emotional may help you to think before indulging. Likewise, avoiding doing your weekly food shopping when you are upset can also be beneficial.
Are You An Emotional Eater?
We all emotionally eat at some point and it is completely normal. Even though it may seem difficult, there are ways that you can combat this. Having healthy distractions such as exercise and meditation is a step in the right direction to fighting your urges. There are also healthy food alternatives to choose from if you really can’t fight the urge.
It is also important to know that you are not alone in this, there is support in the form of groups and charity helplines who can help you find out and deal with the root cause of your negative emotions, and most importantly, help you find an alternative support method that works for you.