Understanding and Overcoming Emotional Eating

A woman sits crying and eats a forkful of chocolate cake.
  • Emotional eating occurs when a person consumes food to distract themselves from intense negative feelings.

  • There are a number of factors that can trigger emotional eating, including trauma, negative body image, and hormonal changes.

  • Although it may be difficult to overcome emotional eating, it can be done by practicing stress reduction techniques, speaking to a licensed professional, and improving your relationship with food.

Emotional eating is a common occurrence that affects the daily lives of nearly 40% of Americans. It involves using food to soothe intense emotions like stress and anxiety.

While occasional emotional eating may not be cause for concern, problems can arise when it turns into a behavioral response to negative feelings.

If this happens, it can increase the risk of developing other medical conditions like unintentional weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and eating disorders.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at emotional eating, what triggers it, and healthier alternatives to coping with stress.

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating — also known as stress eating — occurs when a person uses food as a way to make themselves feel better.

The person consumes food to alleviate distressing emotions or to distract from negative feelings.

The foods that are eaten are usually high in sugar, fat, or salt — commonly referred to as comfort foods — which provide a temporary sense of pleasure and relief from distress.

When a person engages in emotional eating regularly, it can become a learned behavior that may be difficult to recognize and overcome.

What triggers emotional eating?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to emotional eating, but it usually happens when a person experiences intense negative feelings.

Stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness, and anxiety are common emotional eating triggers, as the feelings may cause a person to seek comfort and distraction in one way or another.

Some people may even engage in emotional eating when they are happy. This is because they may associate food with positive feelings and rewards.

How can I tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger.

However, physical hunger is different from emotional eating because it’s driven by the body’s need for nourishment to stay alive.

When you experience physical hunger, you’ll usually have a feeling of emptiness that may be accompanied by other signs, like a rumbling stomach.

A man sits and makes a sad face while biting into a sandwich.

The Cycle of Emotional Eating

Emotional eating may turn into a cycle or pattern in a person’s life. It starts with triggers, which are factors that cause individuals to crave food for relief.

Eating may provide a momentary distraction from these triggers which makes a person feel better temporarily. However, after an emotional eating episode, people usually struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, or regret.

This may be because a person knows that they’re using food as an escape mechanism instead of addressing the cause of their negative emotions.

When this happens, it can lead to the start of a harmful cycle where the feelings of disappointment may prompt even more emotional eating as a way to find relief.

It’s important to understand that while emotional eating may provide temporary comfort, it can often lead to negative consequences.

Relying on food to cope can contribute to weight gain and unhealthy eating habits. It can also impact your emotional wellbeing because your underlying emotions aren’t being addressed effectively.

In severe cases, individuals may develop an eating disorder like bulimia to help them cope with stress or binge eating.

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating can be incredibly challenging and will take time.

It usually involves developing alternative coping strategies and seeking emotional support to help you break these unhealthy eating patterns. If you need help with these strategies, LifeMD can assist you via virtual consultation.

Understanding the Root Causes

To fully understand emotional eating, it’s crucial to determine the root cause of this behavior. Let’s take a closer look at three common causes:

Unresolved trauma

Traumatic experiences from the past can leave emotional scars that may force some people to use food as a way to cope.

Events such as abuse, accidents, or loss can leave individuals with feelings that may be difficult to process. These feelings may resurface in times of distress and can trigger coping mechanisms like emotional eating.

This is often because individuals find it challenging to accurately interpret their body’s needs, and the disconnect can lead to using food to process underlying problems.

Negative body image

When individuals have negative thoughts about their bodies, they may experience discontentment and develop low self-esteem.

This may cause them to turn to food for comfort or to use it to reclaim control of their bodies. Emotional eating may also distract a person from difficult thoughts.

Unaddressed emotions

Unaddressed emotions are powerful triggers for emotional eating. Intense emotions like anger, loneliness, and anxiety can make people feel like they need an escape and cause them to turn to food.

These emotions can also be overwhelming, so individuals may use food as a way to distract themselves from negative feelings.

Key Point: Can Menstrual Cycles Trigger Emotional Eating?

For women, emotional eating can often be triggered by hormonal changes during menstruation. This is mainly due to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) which causes heightened physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, fatigue, and food cravings.

Emotional eating may be a way for women to comfort themselves during this time and to help improve their mood.

Hormonal changes can also influence appetite and hunger levels, which may also lead to food cravings.

Strategies to Break the Cycle and Control Emotional Eating

Although it can be challenging to break the cycle of emotional eating, it is possible if you put the right strategies in place.

Recognize and identify triggers

The best place to start when you want to stop emotional eating is to become aware of your feelings and situations or events that trigger them.

You can do this by keeping an emotions diary or making a mental note when you have the urge to engage in emotional eating. Over time, you’ll be able to identify a pattern of events or triggers.

This awareness can help you anticipate and prepare for these triggers, making it easier to choose healthier coping mechanisms.

Find an alternative emotional outlet

Instead of turning to food to alleviate negative emotions, consider exploring other ways to help you manage your feelings.

Participate in activities that make you happy or provide a sense of relaxation. This may include going for walks, journaling, painting, listening to music, or meditating.

These activities can help you process your emotions and reduce the urge to rely on food for emotional support.

Develop a self-care routine

Prioritizing self-care activities can help you look after your body and mind. Over time, this can also help you build resilience towards negative emotions.

Activities like physical exercise, getting enough sleep, or practicing stress-reducing techniques are all great ways to take care of yourself.

Self-care also gives you a healthier outlet for dealing with negative emotions instead of finding comfort in food.

An older couple takes an exercise walk outdoors.

Seek emotional support

Reaching out to trusted friends and family members or a mental health professional who can offer empathy and guidance is another great strategy for overcoming emotional eating.

These individuals can help you process difficult emotions while providing relief and a fresh perspective on how to navigate difficult situations. Therapy can also help you identify the root cause of your emotional eating and equip you with resources to manage it.

Cultivating Emotional Well-being

Taking care of your physiological well-being is essential for managing triggers that may lead to emotional eating.

Incorporating stress-reduction techniques into your daily routine is a good way to cultivate emotional well-being. These practices can help individuals to calm their minds before they feel too overwhelmed and end up reaching for comfort food.

Popular stress-reduction techniques include:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Regular physical activity

Developing healthy emotional coping strategies is also important for when individuals find themselves in triggering situations.

It can be useful to speak to a psychologist who can provide professional guidance on how to effectively manage emotions. Support groups can also offer a safe space where people can share their experiences and learn from others.

Building a Healthy Relationship with Food

Building a healthy relationship with food involves listening to your body and honoring your hunger and fullness cues.

One way to approach this is called intuitive eating. This process involves paying attention to what your body needs and being able to stop eating when you feel comfortably full.

It also allows you to eat what you want, when you want and relies on having unhealthy foods in moderation for a balanced diet.

Over time, practicing intuitive eating may help you to appreciate food and how you can use it to nourish the body without overindulging.

Other practical ways to improve your relationship with food include:

  • Planning your meals ahead of time
  • Slowly incorporating ‘trigger foods’ back into your diet
  • Seeking guidance from a nutrition professional

Where Can I Learn More About Emotional Eating and Similar Conditions?

At LifeMD, you can talk to a licensed professional about managing emotional eating and promoting healthy weight loss. You may consider enrolling in the LifeMD Weight Management Program. Enrolling in the program means you’ll be working closely with licensed clinicians who will design a personalized plan to help you lose weight.

You can learn more about the online weight management program here.

Kimberli Hastings, CNP

Kimberli is a Family Nurse Practitioner, practicing in the areas of Family Medicine and Mental Health since 2019. She has worked in nursing homes, dialysis centers, and clinics. Kimberli’s goal as a healthcare provider is to improve her patients' lives.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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