Do you also end up binging chocolates, junk food, ice cream, etc whenever there is a bad day or stress? You’re not alone. It’s common for people to turn to food for comfort as a way to cope with big, difficult feelings. 

When you eat in response to emotions, it’s called emotional eating. Everyone does it sometimes. 

Our bodies need food to survive. It makes sense that eating lights up the reward system in the brain and makes you feel better. But when emotional eating happens often, and you don’t have other ways to cope, it can be a problem. 

Although it may feel like a way to cope in those moments, eating doesn’t address the true issue. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, bored, lonely, sad, or tired, food won’t fix those feelings. For some people, this vicious cycle of turning to food to cope creates guilt and shame — more tough feelings to navigate. Managing emotional eating can be complicated. 

Food is at the center of so many things that we do. Food is part of our celebrations. Making food for someone going through a rough time is a way to show you care. Sharing food with others is a way to connect. It’s natural to have an emotional connection to food. 

The goal is to allow you to make a conscious decision about when, what, and how you eat. There will be times when it makes sense for food to be part of dealing with big emotions. For other times, there are better ways to cope. 

Causes for someone to eat because of their emotions:

Almost anything can trigger a desire to eat. Common external reasons for emotional eating may include:

  • work stress
  • financial worries
  • health issues
  • relationship struggles

People who follow restrictive diets or have a history of dieting are more likely to emotionally eat. There can be other potential internal causes as well.

Is emotional eating an eating disorder?

Emotional eating on its own is not an eating disorder. It can be a sign of disordered eating, which may lead to developing an eating disorder. 

Disordered eating can include:

  • being very rigid with food choices
  • labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
  • frequent dieting or food restriction
  • often eating in response to emotions rather than physical hunger
  • irregular meal timing
  • obsessive thoughts about food that start to interfere with the rest of your life
  • feelings of guilt or shame after eating foods you view as “unhealthy”

You deserve to have a good relationship with food. If you think you may have disordered eating behaviors, speak with a mental health professional or registered dietitian.

Why food?

There are many reasons why eating becomes a way to cope. Difficult emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Eating releases Dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that makes us feel good. We also develop habits and routines with food. If you always eat when stressed, you might reach for food at the first sign of stress without realizing it.On top of that, food is legal, and you can get it everywhere. 

Physical and emotional hunger can be easily confused, but there are some key differences. Emotional hunger is often urgent and tied to your feelings. Physical hunger can come on more gradually and be tied to the last time you ate.

How to stop emotional eating?

It can be hard to change a habit like emotional eating, but it is possible. Below are some ways to help you cope.

  1. Journal your emotions: Eating in response to emotion can happen automatically. The more you understand how you feel when you do certain things, the better your chance at changing things. 

Try keeping a record of those times when you eat but are not physically hungry. Make a note of: 

  • what was happening
  • how you were feeling
  • any emotions you noticed when you got the urge to eat

Try not to judge yourself on your findings. Try to be genuinely curious about what is happening when you eat in response to emotions. This takes a lot of practice. Be kind to yourself as you start to explore. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

  1. Healthy coping strategies: Once you have more information about the emotions, situations, or thoughts that can trigger eating, you can start to make changes. If you notice that you always eat when you feel stressed, it’s the stress that needs attention. Think about some things you can do to better relieve your stress. It takes time and practice to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other activities. Experiment with different things to find what works for you.
  1. Be active : Moving your body can be a powerful way to manage stress and anxiety. Activity helps to reduce levels of stress hormones in your body. It also releases endorphins to give your mood a boost. An exercise can help manage underlying emotional triggers for eating. 
  1. Eating with Mindfulness: Mindfulness has many benefits for mental health. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment you are in. Here are some examples of mindfulness practices:
  • sitting quietly and focusing on your breath.
  • doing a body scan to notice any areas of tension and purposefully relaxing them.
  • listen to a guided meditation.
  • focus on the things around you and name a few things that you can taste, smell, see, touch, and hear.

Mindful eating is a way of eating that relies on internal cues to make decisions about food. Mindful eating is an effective way to improve your relationship with food and is associated with psychological well-being. It’s a way to fully experience the act of eating. It encourages you to slow down and be more aware of the food’s appearance, smells, flavors, textures, and sounds. Mindful eating is about pausing before eating to fully explore what is needed at that moment. Is it food? If so, what type of food? If not food, what will meet this need?