Is emotional eating getting in the way of finding freedom with food? Learn to manage and overcome it.
“It may be time to consider other ways of relating to your eating, yourself, and the many, many food choices we face each day. Mindful eating is simply another powerful way of relating to your experiences of food, your relationship to your body, and the joy that is possible in savoring your experiences. Then moving on to the many other parts of your life that eating nourishes and gives you energy for!”
Hunger is not the only reason we eat. We may turn to food to fill an emotional void or to find comfort. We may look to food to celebrate an accomplishment or to feel better about a setback. When we turn to food for comfort, we tend to reach for foods we enjoy eating, aka “comfort food,” which is different for everyone.
While we cannot stop experiencing a full range of emotions because they are part of being human, we can find alternative ways to handle the difficult ones. Eating when we’re having a strong emotion may make us feel good in the moment, but it may also make us feel worse in the long term. That is when our actions related to emotional eating can sabotage us.
What is emotional eating?
“Food is a lot of people’s therapy—when we say comfort food, we really mean that. It’s releasing dopamine and serotonin in your brain that makes you feel good.”
Emotional eating occurs when we use food as a stress reliever or comfort in response to difficult or negative emotions. Most of us have turned to a bag of chips, slice of pizza, or other comforting food at one stressful time or another in our lives. Occasional events like these are helpful, and relatively harmless. Unfortunately, emotional eating as a regular coping strategy may be detrimental to your physical and mental health. When emotional eating occurs often, and food becomes your primary go-to when dealing with negative emotions, it may become an issue.
First, let’s understand the difference between emotional eating and binge eating disorder (BED), which is a serious mental health concern. With BED, the amount of food consumed, sense of loss of control, and frequency is greater than with emotional eating. Those with BED eat more and faster than a typical person would in one sitting, to the point of being very uncomfortable or even sick. Binge eating episodes also happen several times a week for at least several weeks in a row. Those with emotional eating, on the other hand, typically eat a “normal” amount of a meal and do so infrequently.
How to stop emotional eating
An effective way to break the cycle of emotional eating is to identify what is triggering the urge to eat. This process begins with understanding the distinction between emotional and physical hunger.
Emotional hunger may come on suddenly. The desire to eat is usually paired with a strong unwelcome emotion like anger, sadness, or anxiety. You will feel as if you need to eat straightaway, even if you have eaten recently. However, once you have eaten, you may not feel satisfied and have feelings of regret, guilt, or shame.
“If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that brings you down.”
Physical hunger is your internal cue notifying you to eat because your stomach is nearing empty. This type of stomach hunger is tied to the last time you ate. It will come on gradually. You feel as if you are able to wait to eat, if necessary. After eating, you will usually feel satisfied and have no feelings of guilt or shame.
Facing something emotionally difficult or a challenging situation can be daunting. That is the reason why you may try avoiding the very thing you need to deal with. However, expanding your awareness with mindfulness can be very helpful.
Mindfully tune in and create new neural connections
Being more present with your emotions, appetite, sensations of fullness, and relationship with food is a great place to start. That is, by just becoming more aware of what you are experiencing at the moment you are experiencing it enables you to know when to pause and try something new.
The benefits of mindfulness will reach other aspects of your life too: mindfulness is associated with improvements in physical and mental health. Research shows it can bring about lower levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress-related symptoms; it can also increase feelings of joy, gratefulness, love, contentment, and satisfaction.
Tuning in, mindfully, to your internal landscape offers you insight into what you really need, want, or value. By changing your behaviors and moving beyond food as comfort, avoidance, or escape when it is hard to cope, you will make new neural pathways, building habits that can start you on a new, healthy path.
“The highest levels of performance come to people who are centered, intuitive, creative, and reflective—people who know to see a problem as an opportunity.”
Acceptance, soothing, temporary distractions, and connections can help
The course of treatment for emotional eating depends on the degree of one’s emotional eating and situation. Individuals with a low to moderate degree of emotional eating can adopt simple activities to replace the desire to eat. You can learn how to notice the emotions that cue the urge to eat, then learn to change how you respond to those cues. It is a process that times time, but it is doable.
Substituting behaviors of emotional eating with a new way of coping, can bring you a whole new array of emotion management tools. These could include activities such as:
- Naming your emotions
- Listening to music
- Accepting negative emotions until they pass, shift, or change
- Free-writing for 15 minutes about what is bothering you
- Getting a task completed that might take your mind off food while giving you mental space to acknowledge your emotions
- Distract yourself from the upset temporarily by reading a book
- Starting an activity that soothes you
- Changing your physiological state through exercise, such as walking, yoga, or swimming, or even something rigorous
- Getting adequate sleep
- Connecting with someone
Individuals with a high degree of emotional eating can focus on healthy responses to emotions, eating cues, and emotion regulation, for example, through psychotherapy.
Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are types of psychotherapy that have been shown to be effective in managing intense, negative emotions. There are also medication options that can make it a bit easier to choose a substitute for food if you experience persistent emotional dysregulation.
Eating to cope can work in the moment, but it can lead to more suffering later. When it comes to finding freedom with food, what works for you will be different than what works for someone else, so it’s important to experiment with a variety of activities or therapies to find which one suits you best. In some cases, it may be important to speak with your healthcare provider before making any changes or adopting any new strategies. Remember, developing a healthy, free, non-emotion based relationship with food is a value, a way of being, a process that will not be quick or perfect.
“It doesn’t matter how out of control you might feel around certain foods at the moment. You can gain freedom. You really can.”
Devonport, T., Nicholls, W., & Fullerton, C. (2019). A systematic review of the association between emotions and eating behaviour in normal and overweight adult populations. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(1), 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105317697813
Konttinen, H. (2020). Emotional eating and obesity in adults: The role of depression, sleep and genes. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 79(3), 283–289. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665120000166
van Strien, T. (2018). Causes of emotional eating and matched treatment of obesity. Current Diabetes Report, 18(35). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1000-xAll Blogs