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Emotional Eating 101

It’s time to stop the vicious cycle that impacts your physical, emotional and mental health.

Have been grown frustrated by the weight loss cycle? Are you exhausted by all of the fad diets you have tried that never seem to help for long? You lose weight, it comes back, and it is never ending cycle. If you’re experiencing these types of issues, you may be dealing with emotional eating.

What Is Emotional Eating?

According to WebMD, emotional eating something that people do when they’re trying to avoid negative or upsetting emotions that they are experiencing. It is how people try to cope with their lives, it isn’t about eating for nourishment, it isn’t about eating because you’re hungry.

The emotions that drive overeating can come in different forms, it might be anger that is fueling your eating habits, it could also be fear, anxiety, depression, boredom, exhausting, anguish, loneliness, discouragement, and a whole host of other negative emotions that affect your psyche. In fact, there are people who turn to food as a way of calming themselves down when they’re excited and happy.

It’s quite simple – if you turn to food, even when you are not hungry, then there’s a good chance you’re an emotional eater. Those who allow their emotions to drive their eating habits may find that hunger comes quickly, and they feel as though they need to eat immediately (true hunger is gradual). You may even find yourself going out of your way to get a specific food – driving a long way just for a specific burger or heading to a grocery store in the early hours to fulfill a craving.

Emotional eaters tend to choose foods that bring them comfort – the salty foods, the sweet ones, and fast food- pretty much the worst types of food that we have available to us. Emotional eaters are often guilty of scarfing their food down quickly as well, which is known as binge eating.

You may feel anxious to eat your food quickly to get it all down. Alternatively, you might be the type of person who just eats constantly throughout the day as a way of coping.

Another hallmark of the emotional eater is ignoring your body’s signals telling you that you are full, instead, the emotional eater pushes beyond that feeling and will eat until they feel sick. This invites feelings of regret and guilt, which may cause them to hide their eating habits.

It might not sound like that big a deal to you, you might be thinking that most people are guilty of using food as a coping mechanism. While that is true and we all do use food as a method to balance our emotions – it’s something that we do on occasion. Emotional eating starts to take over your life, creating weight problems and if every emotion you experience drives you to food, your new drug of choice, then it is not a healthy habit you have built. It’s impossible to maintain a healthy weight when emotional eating becomes a habit. You can’t build your confidence when it’s constantly being broken down by these habits and using food as a numbing agent.

What Triggers Emotional Eating?

It is far easier to build a healthy diet and make good choices when you understand what it is that triggers your emotional eating. One of the most powerful ways to identify triggers is to dig deep and keep a food journal.

Not only will a food journal make you more mindful about what you’re eating – but it will help you determine whether you ate at a specific time because you were angry or because you were experiencing emotions that you were trying to numb.

So, when you record your food in the journal ensure that you make a note of your emotions and what caused them, what you ate, the time of day this happened, and what else was going on at the time.

You may then begin to see a pattern – it might be that when you’re at home on your own at the weekend you are more drawn to overeating or perhaps a specific situation that causes you an upset that makes you turn to emotional eating. Understanding the pattern and your triggers will help you prepare a way to combat these feelings when they appear.

The truth is, we all experience emotions that we don’t want to – it’s part of the human journey. Sometimes life is sad, hurt is inevitable, and anger is a natural response to a whole host of issues. We experience our emotions for a reason and when we try to numb them instead of process them we are just inviting an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating into our lives.

Your emotions happen, you eat them away, and you’re left feeling physically uncomfortable and experiencing even more emotions as a result of your overeating. Sometimes it’s more important to feel uncomfortable with your emotions and understand them than it is to make them go away. You will feel far more fulfilled this way.

The Difference Between Emotional and Physical Hunger

We all have certain foods that we consider a comfort food, and it may be that your sex or mood sway what food it is that you turn to.

WebMD reports that women prefer sweeter foods like ice cream and chocolate, while men typically reach for pizza or a steak. Additionally, it may be that you want pizza when you’re in a good mood and ice cream when you’re sad. When you feel bored you reach for crispy, crunchy, salty snacks like pretzels and chips.

While researchers are looking into whether there is anyone on this earth who looks at carrot sticks as comfort, but for now what we know is that unhealthy foods stimulate feel-good chemicals in our brains, which is why we turn to them in times of trouble. It’s almost like an addiction.

The signs of physical hunger include the ability to stop when you are full, eating doesn’t come with guilt, any type of food will satisfy you, and you can postpone your gradual hunger.

Emotional hunger, though, comes on urgently and it’s sudden. It drives a specific craving for a specific type of food, whether it be a burger or a specific flavor of ice cream. You will generally eat more of it than what is considered a healthy portion (and more than you would normally eat), and you feel guilty after eating it.

Why Do I Eat Emotionally?

There are a lot of triggers – whether it’s a feeling, a specific place or a situation that causes it.


Have you noticed how hungry you get when you’re dealing with extreme stress? It’s not all in your head – chronic stress causes your body to produce excess amounts of cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for triggering your cravings for sweet, fried, and salty types of food.

It’s easy to understand why – when you eat foods like that, despite the fact that they contain no nutrients, you get a pure blast of pleasure followed by a surge of energy. The most stressed out you are the more likely you will be to eat to get relief from your emotions.


It’s common for us to pick up foods to eat when we have nothing else to do. When you spend your evening at home catching up on your favorite shows trying to unwind it’s common to occupy yourself by eating. It might be mindless, but it may also be to distract you from underlying emotions or a dissatisfaction with life.

Social Influences

Meeting friends for dinner is an excellent way to relieve your stress levels. The problem with it is that it often leads us down the path of overeating. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and order three courses because everyone else is.

That may be fine for some, but if you are already dealing with emotional eating this can be a setback you don’t need. One of the ways you can combat this when eating out is by ordering first and being able to resist the influence of others to treat yourself. Avoid eating out until you feel strong enough to do this.

  • Old Habits – When you look back to your childhood there’s a good chance it’s filled with warm memories of going for ice cream after a big loss (or huge win) in your sport of choice, maybe it was ordering pizza every Sunday after church or a bag of candy when arriving home with a stellar report card. It could be that nostalgia drives your emotional eating or it could be that old habits die hard. When your parents soothed or celebrated with you using food it created the habit that has extended into your childhood.
  • Emotion Stuffing – One of the most common causes of emotional eating is, of course, an attempt to stifle your emotions. Whatever type of emotion it may be, when you don’t want to experience it you use food to avoid dealing with them.

Who Is At Risk?

Are you eating emotionally or are you at risk of falling into the habit? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you turn to food when you’re under stress?
  • Do you keep eating even after you’re full?
  • Do you eat even though you don’t feel hungry?
  • Do you eat in order to feel better?
  • Do you tend to reward yourself with certain meals or foods?
  • Do you often eat until you are completely stuffed?
  • Do you ever feel as though food is your friend? That it makes you feel safe?
  • Does food leave you feeling powerless?
  • Does food leave you feeling out of control?
  • Are your portions larger than normal?
  • Do you eat at strange times?
  • Do you feel anxious about a social situation or an event?
  • Has a major life event left you struggling to cope?
  • Are you overweight? Has your weight jumped considerably in recent months?
  • Do other family members self-soothe with food?

If you answer yes to any number of these questions, then there is a good chance that you are already an emotional eater. If you only answer yes to a few then you may be at risk of becoming an emotional eater.

How Can I Get Help For My Emotional Eating?

Learning how to self-soothe is a major part of overcoming your emotional eating problem. You are replacing food as your soother, so create a new daily habit that will help feed you emotionally in a healthy way – whether it’s meditation, yoga, making a list of what you’re grateful for or journaling. It could be one of these things or a combination of them.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is that you make time to practice it daily. Additionally, you should have a list of tools handy that you can turn to if you get an urge to head to the kitchen for snacks. Some of those tools could be physical exercise, while others may be coloring, yoga, a specific television program, reading or even a bubble bath. What’s important about the tools you use is that they are rituals that will truly soothe you in the way that food used to do.

Eating is not the solution because it only fuels those negative emotions. You’re not going to find respite by punishing yourself if you trip up nor will self-loathing help your case. These are attitudes that will fuel your desire to eat your emotions. This is why it’s all about choosing tools that will truly soothe and nourish you – thus bringing you to a place of self-acceptance.

If you are someone who has been using food as a means of coping, don’t feel ashamed or put yourself down because of it. As we mentioned above, it is something that we are all guilty of doing at various points in our lives and unfortunately, it’s easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle. You shouldn’t look at it as a case of poor self-control.

It’s simply a sign that you aren’t paying enough attention to the nourishment that you truly need. So, don’t beat yourself up about it – see it, instead, as an opportunity to look at what you aren’t dealing with and what you need to give yourself more of. It’s an opportunity to get in tune with your emotions and your body. Think of as the catalyst for change that it is and allow yourself the opportunity to have a truly healthy relationship with food and eating.

It is possible to beat emotional eating, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you will fix the problem overnight. It will take time and commitment.

Connect With Hunger Signals – you will have an easier time making healthy decisions about food when you understand the natural hunger signals your body sends. This will take a bit of work because you have fallen into the cycle of letting your emotions trigger your hunger instead of your body. It can be difficult then to get back in touch with your natural appetite and understand when you really are hungry.

You will need to get in tune with your body to do so – if you’re starting to feel low on energy and your stomach is growling then that is real physical hunger. Although, you don’t want to get to a point of being overly hungry because it may cause you to make the wrong decisions about the types of food you should eat.

If you aren’t experiencing physical signs of hunger, then you may want to avoid eating until you do. One of the most effective tools to determine whether you’re really hungry or not is to think of a vegetable and if a plate of those vegetables sounds appealing then you’re really hungry. If it doesn’t, then… it may be your emotions trying to dictate your hunger.

Whole Foods Matter – Understanding hunger signals is vital in the war against emotional eating – but, choosing the wrong foods and skipping meals will only negatively impact your natural appetite, which will just sabotage all of your efforts.

If you aren’t a breakfast eater and instead drink an extra cup of coffee before eating a poor lunch you will quickly find yourself starved of nutrients by the early afternoon. Which means you will be overcome by your appetite and you will end up eating whatever you can get your hands on to fill that hole. There is a good chance it will be from a vending machine or the drive-thru.

Likewise, if your diet is filled with sugars and refined carbohydrates then you’re causing steep spikes in blood sugar which will cause crashes and cravings. It’s incredibly difficult to hear your body’s physical hunger symptoms when the only foods you feed it are entirely devoid of nutrients.

When you are hit with cravings it will be cravings for more of the same – more refined carbs, more sugar, more junk. This means that your body isn’t getting the nutrients that it needs to thrive and it’s difficult to feel satiated when you’re not giving your body the right foods.

Don’t set yourself up for failure – take the time to eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You should be eating plenty of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, olive oils, nuts, and seeds. Every meal should be well-balanced and nourishing to your body – and so should your snacks. Don’t forget to factor in portion sizes, too.

Combatting Temptation

There are a few helpful tips which may help you combat some of the temptation.

  • If one of your triggers is loneliness or boredom then reach out to a friend, whether it’s a phone call or a text, it will distract you from your need to snack.
  • If it’s stress that triggers your need to eat emotionally then learn how to manage your stress more effectively. There are several ways you can try to combat your stress – yoga and meditation are excellent tools, but so is listening to music, exercising, writing, and dancing. Any activity that you enjoy doing should help you distract from your desire to feed your stress with junk.
  • Is your hunger driven by exhaustion? Or, is your exhaustion making you feel hungry? You may want to reconsider your bedtime pattern. You should be getting seven hours of sleep every night, so think about what time you get up and plan your bedtime around that. You should also get up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time. If you need help getting into a new habit, create a relaxing routine around bedtime to let your body know it’s time to unwind.
  • Are you prone to emotional eating as a way of procrastinating? You will feel much better if you just tackle your task and get it out of the way.

Something that is important to remember is that if you have been overeating for a long period of time your body has likely become used to a certain number of calories.

When you scale your calories back to the recommended daily allowance you may feel as though you’re starving yourself.

Provided you are feeding yourself the right things, you are not starving yourself – your body just needs time to become accustomed to consuming the correct number of calories that it needs to thrive.

You can find a suitable calorie count for your age and activity levels from the USDA (*).

Harvard Health offers some tips on how best to eat mindfully.

It all starts with your grocery list – it may be helpful to plan your meals in advance so when you write your shopping list you are only including the foods absolutely necessary. You may want to shop online so you can shop directly for what you need and not face the temptation of the supermarket’s inner circle.

You may also want to eat on a smaller plate which will make your new smaller portions look bigger than they are. The white space of a large plate may leave you feeling as though you’re robbing yourself of food. You don’t have to say grace if you’re not a believer, but you may want to take a moment to appreciate the food in front of you – whether it’s the person who made it or the farmers who grew your produce organically.

Something that restaurateurs understand is that people don’t just eat with their taste buds, they also eat with their eyes. We talk a lot about how important it is to eat a rainbow – it’s important for your health to get the necessary nutrients, but it’s also important to create a vibrant plate that looks delicious. This is something you can practice at every meal. Another big thing that you should try is to slow down your eating – if you eat particularly quickly you may need to work at this.

You can either extend your eating time by making more conversation or you can drop your utensils after each bite so that it slows you down. This won’t just help you feel fuller once your meal is down, it will also reduce gas and bloat.

If you’re an emotional eater and you are struggling to beat it, you may want to speak to your primary care physician. Your doctor can help you get your diet in order. Additionally, you may want to speak to a therapist who can help you identify the root cause of your emotions. Not only will this help you get control over your emotional eating, but it will help you in every other aspect of your life. We often underestimate just how sway our emotions have over our physical and mental wellbeing. Understanding where negative emotions are coming from and learning how to manage them appropriately is the greatest favor you can do for yourself.

Final Thoughts

There is no shame in being an emotional eater, but that doesn’t mean that it is something that you should accept. It’s a habit that you need to break – for your physical health and your mental wellbeing. In addition to the techniques offered above, your doctor and/or a therapist may be able to help guide you through the situation.

It’s important that you avoid situations that are likely to trigger your emotional eating, especially as you start to tackle the problem. Don’t put yourself in the way of temptation when you aren’t strong enough to resist it.

Additionally, don’t keep foods in your home that you know you can’t eat in moderation – if you go weak at the knees for barbecue chips buy plain ones instead. If you can’t walk by the cupboard without thinking about the oatmeal pies hiding at the back of the pantry, then just don’t buy them. Instead, stock your cupboards and fridge with healthy snacks – why shouldn’t you crave the comfort of a carrot stick instead of chocolate cake?

Nothing beats the fresh crunch of celery after it has been dipped in a homemade ranch dressing. It’s all about retraining your body and mind to accept that healthy food can be every bit as delicious as the unhealthy ones our brains have tricked us into thinking we want.


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