Freedom From Emotional Eating

By Rebecca Capps   |   November 22, 2022
We are what we feel – and what we eat – and with emotional eating, one might be conflating the two

With the holiday season on the way, stresses can run high and food can be both plentiful and comforting – often leading to emotional eating as a response. Emotional eating can induce a lot of shame and become a chronic experience if it goes unaddressed. While nearly everyone has experienced emotional eating at one point, it can create additional guilt, stress, and anxiety when it becomes a habit. It can also lead to a disordered relationship with food and cause further mental and physical health struggles. So, let’s examine what precisely emotional eating is, how to gauge if you’re doing it, and discuss a few ways you can start coping with your emotions more effectively.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when your emotions, such as boredom, stress, or sadness, guide what, when, and how much you eat. Furthermore, emotional eating doesn’t have to respond to a life-altering event or intense news; it can also occur in response to everyday emotions (including excitement!).

As a Licensed Family & Marriage Therapist specializing in eating disorders, I see many clients who come to me and initially believe their emotional eating is somehow due to a lack of self-control. However, disordered eating is not just a simple “discipline issue.” Struggles with food can result from deeper-rooted issues, such as food being your only source of pleasure or struggling to tolerate uncomfortable emotions (and so much more).

Simply put, emotional eating may be characterized as a loss of control around food while in an emotional state. Not only may you reach for food whenever you’re feeling emotional, but you may also struggle to respond to your satiety cues. For this reason, therapy can be a valuable option to help you regain balance with eating.

Are You Emotionally Eating?

At this point, you may be wondering: “Am I an emotional eater?” Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help determine whether or not you’re emotionally eating:

–Do you use food for comfort when you’re feeling emotional?

–Do you tend to eat until you’re uncomfortable anytime you feel stressed?

–Do you have trouble telling the difference between physical and non-physical hunger (i.e., cravings) for food?

–Do you use food as a reward or

–Do you feel out of control or anxious about food?

The occasional celebration with food is not a habitual problem (even moderation in moderation), but if your regular behavior reflects “yes” to one or more of these questions, you might be emotionally eating.

How to Navigate Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a conditioned response more than anything. You may unknowingly use food to cope with emotions. Eventually, though, and before you know it, you are conditioning yourself to reach for sweet or savory foods whenever stress feels unmanageable.

To properly navigate this emotional response to food, you must create a new habit. Make a habit of identifying your emotions, acknowledging when you are using food to self-soothe, and determining new ways to cope (sans food). One of the best ways to do this is to utilize mindful eating.

Mindful Eating as the Antidote to Emotional Eating 

Mindful eating is a practice that trains you to be more intentional about your eating patterns while maintaining a balanced relationship with food. When you’re eating due to your emotions, you tend to disconnect from the sacred ritual and experience of eating. Whatever the problem, the solution is not to use food to cope. As Renée Jones declares, “Face your stuff; don’t stuff your face.” When you eat mindfully, you slow down and pay attention to your food, which enables you to better digest and savor every bite.

Tune in With Yourself

The idea that you crave food starts in your mind, and then you go through the motions of getting it and eating it. But how often are you tuning in with yourself after you choose what you want to eat or before you follow through with the food? Checking in with yourself can make all the difference in healing your emotional eating.

It can be hard to distinguish when you’re eating due to hunger versus when you’re eating due to your emotions. Try tuning in with yourself before you eat this week and view it as an experiment. Ask yourself: “Am I physically hungry?” If not, try examining what feelings may be driving your response to food. Tuning in with yourself provides excellent insight into your patterns of emotional eating.

Become Familiar with Your Hunger Cues

Hunger cues are the body’s way of signaling a need for energy. Hunger is a physical sensation triggered by a hormone called ghrelin, which notifies your brain when it’s time to eat. When emotions determine when or how you eat, it can be easy to ignore your hunger cues and simply eat whenever you want. Take some time to reconnect with your body and listen to its cues. When do you feel the sensation of hunger, and how long does it usually take after eating a meal before feeling hungry again? 

The more you become familiar with your hunger cues, the easier it will be to notice when you’re ignoring them. Keep in mind that the number one predictor of overeating is restriction. Therefore, if you desire more control over your eating habits, the answer is to stop trying to disregard your hunger cues.

Utilize Support

You can utilize support, such as therapy or nutritional counseling, to address your underlying emotions and be accountable as you become a more mindful eater. By enlisting professional help, you can learn valuable strategies to help you on your path to wellness.

Shift Your Energy

Replacing old habits with new ones is an essential feature of behavior change.

Every night, especially after a long and stressful day, you may find yourself thinking about all of the issues you’re currently facing and, as a result, turn to food for comfort. By redirecting your energy to something else whenever this urge happens, you can begin to shift your existing emotional eating habit and replace it with a new one. For example, instead of succumbing to your urge to eat emotionally, you may replace that habit with listening to music, reading, yoga, or journaling – habits that can interact with and improve your emotional state. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something you actually enjoy vs. something you’re doing just because you think you “should.”

It’s important to note that shifting your energy will only address your emotional eating partially. When it comes to healing from emotional eating, let me quote Geneen Roth, who wrote, “Your work is not to change what you do, but to witness what you do with enough awareness, curiosity, and tenderness that the lies and old decisions upon which the compulsion is based become apparent and fall away. You will stop when you no longer believe eating will save your life when you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or lonely. When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart. When the shape of your body no longer matches the shape of your beliefs, the weight disappears.” (Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, p. 80-81).


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