How to Recognize and Stop Emotional and Stress Eating
For some people, comfort eating goes beyond indulging in the occasional treats and ends up going to an extreme. In this case, this type of dysfunctional eating to appease certain emotions becomes truly unmanageable.
When comfort eating reaches this extreme, it becomes what is known as emotional stress eating.
To identify this condition, which unfortunately many are unaware even exists it is important to understand what it is, the feelings that often lead to emotional eating, and the differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
What Is Emotional Stress Eating
Emotional eating is defined as the act of turning to food for comfort, as a reward, for stress relief, or simply out of boredom rather than simply to satisfy hunger. The act of emotional eating can be done either consciously or unconsciously.
Deciding to treat yourself is a conscious form of emotional eating; finding yourself digging through the cupboards and snacking because you can’t find anything else to do is an unconscious form of emotional eating.
There is a common misconception that emotional eating stems from a lack of control on the part of the person affected. However, experts disagree. Psychologists believe that it is far more complicated than that.
For many, emotional eating goes beyond something of choice and can be a chronic state where the person engaging in this type of behavior does not even realize that it is happening.
What does it mean to eat your feelings?
Using food to celebrate, as a reward or as a pick me up every once in a while isn’t a bad thing. However, if your first impulse when you are upset, exhausted, lonely, stressed, angry, or bored is to open the refrigerator and look for something to snack on, this is a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed.
One of the classic signs of an emotional eater is eating alone, and being worried that someone will notice or see how much or how often they ate.
Using food to make yourself feel better sets you on an unhealthy cycle that is difficult, but not impossible to break. People who are emotional eaters tend to feel as though they are being controlled by their food cravings, but eating doesn’t stave off the emotional hunger they are feeling.
In fact, more often than not, it piles more on top of the root problem as emotional eaters often feel worse after giving into emotional eating than they did before doing so.
The feelings of guilt for consuming so many calories and not having more willpower just make things worse.
Compounded to that, emotional eaters don’t know how to deal with their emotions healthily, and since they use food do not seek out healthy alternatives, and so have more and more difficulties controlling their weight and will have less and less power over both food and feelings.
How to Recognize and Stop Emotional and Stress Eating
If you are unsure if you are an emotional eater, consider the following questions. If you answer yes to any of the questions, chances are you are an emotional eater.
⦁ Do you regularly reward yourself with food?
⦁ Do you eat more when you are feeling stressed?
⦁ Do you eat to soothe feelings of anger? Sadness? Boredom?
⦁ Do you eat when you are not hungry or when you are full?
⦁ Do you regularly eat beyond the point of feeling stuffed?
⦁ Do you feel like food is a friend? Does food make you feel safe?
⦁ Do you feel like you have no control around food as if food has power over you?
⦁ Do you often eat alone, and worry that someone will notice how much you ate?
If you feel that you, or someone you know, maybe an emotional eater, read on to learn more about the emotions that are often responsible for leading people into emotional eating.
Feelings That Lead To Emotional Eating
Learning the feelings that trigger emotional eating is the first step to overcoming emotional eating and being able to deal with the emotions in a more positive way. There are six main emotions that lead people to emotional eating, which are pain/heartbreak, loneliness, fatigue, boredom, and stress.
Typically, the foods eaten behind emotions are fatty, sugary, or salty junk foods that stimulate pleasure centers in the brain, much like cocaine or heroin, which is the reason that emotional eaters turn to them in time of crisis.
Many people think that the idea of a woman reaching for ice cream after a break up is nothing more than a cliché that the movies use. In reality, it is very true.
Breakups aren’t the only heartbreak that leads to emotional eating, though. The death of a loved one, not getting the promotion you wanted, or a friend moving away are all things that can lead to the pain and heartbreak that causes emotional eating.
Many people believe that the pain is too much to bear and eating is a way to temporarily silence that pain.
Feeling alone is another common reason people reach for food for comfort. When people feel alone, they often reach for food as a way to give themselves something to do, preparing and eating food, as well as feeling full gives the brain something else to focus on, instead of focusing on the feelings of loneliness. If you find that you spend a large amount of time alone, this could be the reason you are reaching for food as a comfort tool.
A study done in 2012 by researcher Andrew Calvin, MD, MPH, found that those who were getting only 2/3 of the sleep they were used to consume an additional 549 calories per day.
The brain often confuses feelings of fatigue with feelings of hunger, which leads people to consume more food. Ensuring you are getting enough sleep is an easy way to reduce the amount of emotional eating you find yourself doing.
Being bored is probably one of the most common reasons behind unnecessary eating. If you find that you are eating because you are feeling restless or bored, chances are you are not eating due to hunger.
When you are eating behind boredom, you are often choosing foods that aren’t as healthy, and you are also eating food that your body does not need.
Stress is a natural part of life that we all experience. When you turn to food because you are feeling stressed out, you are typically going to be looking for foods that are going to make you feel better. This means you likely aren’t looking for carrot sticks or celery.
Eating to unwind or relax from stress is more common than people realize and is one of the biggest contributors to emotional eating.
Many associates the crunch of potato chips or crackers as a relaxing, and when significant stress is felt, they reach for a big bag or box for comfort.
Each of the feelings above can make your body think you are hungry and think you need those foods to deal with those emotions. This can leave you wondering how you are supposed to differentiate between emotional hunger and legitimate physical hunger.
In the next section, we are going to cover some of the key differences between the two types of hunger, and how you can better read your body’s cues to know when you are hungry and when you are reaching for food just because you are feeling emotional pain, loneliness, fatigue, boredom, or stress.
Emotional Hunger Versus Physical Hunger
Knowing the difference between emotional and physical hunger is not always easy. The two hunger pangs often feel the same to one another, and when we feel hunger, we want to ease that feeling by consuming food.
There are however five key difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger that are important to consider when you are trying to decide if you are craving food because your body needs it or simply a sign that you are bored and in need of a distraction.
Physical hunger comes on gradually, unless you haven’t eaten in a long time, and are overdue for your next meal. It is not a dire need for food right this minute, and can easily be delayed until you can access healthy food options.
Emotional hunger, on the other hand, comes out of nowhere and leaves you feeling like if you don’t eat right this minute, it will cause great suffering. Unlike physical hunger, which can be delayed until meal time, emotional hunger demands instant satisfaction.
Physical hunger naturally occurs a few hours after you have had a meal. It occurs when the body has used up the nutrients provided and is looking for replacement nutrients to keep its energy stores up. Emotional hunger is completely unrelated to time and can occur even mere minutes after you have finished a meal.
Physical hunger can be satisfied with virtually any food that is accessible to you. As long as it provides calories and nutrients to the body, the body will be physically satisfied.
Emotional hunger causes specific cravings that you feel like you need to have. Emotional hunger will not be satisfied until you have consumed the food that you are craving. Often these foods are unhealthy and full of sugars and empty calories.
Physical hunger goes away. After you have eaten food and your body has sent fullness signals to your brain, your hunger goes away. When you are eating for emotional reasons, the hunger, or desire to consume food persists even when your body has sent those fullness signals to your brain. This often results in overeating, sometimes on a massive scale.
When you respond to your body’s emotional desire for food, you are often left with feelings of guilt because of the amount of sugar or empty calories you have consumed.
You may also feel guilty that you lack the self-control not to eat because of emotional reasons.
If you are unsure if you are eating for physical or emotional reasons, consider each of the five points above.
If you just ate a large meal thirty minutes ago and you are obsessing over the thought of an ice cream cone, chances are you aren’t feeling physical hunger and instead you are feeling emotional hunger.
It is important to know the difference between the two types of hunger as emotional eating can affect many different aspects of your life with one of the most obvious being your weight.
How Emotional Eating Affects Your Weight
It is well known that eating, more specifically, what and when you eat is directly correlated to your weight. This means that when you are eating healthy foods, and eating when your body needs food you are going to be able to maintain a healthy body weight and lose weight if you have the weight to lose. When you are eating in response to your emotions, you are far more likely to gain weight.
The reason that you are more likely to gain weight is that when you are eating in response to emotions, you are choosing foods known as comfort foods.
Comfort foods are foods that are typically high in calories, sugar, fat, and carbohydrates and hold little or no nutritional value, such as ice cream, chocolate, French fries, chips, pizza, and cookies.
Comfort foods can also include meals from your childhood that you had at family gatherings, or were made for you when you had a bad day or were feeling sick.
Not all comfort foods are unhealthy, however, as a general rule, the foods that are reached for to help cope with emotions tend to be less healthy than the foods we eat at meals to help nourish our bodies.
Too Many Calories
Besides the fact that emotional eaters choose unhealthy high-calorie junk food, there is the fact that emotional eating typically takes place alongside regular meals, not in place of them, so the calorie count can easily skyrocket further contributing to weight gain.
Eating in response to your emotions is more likely to lead you down the road to weight gain, as well as the health problems related to overweight and obesity.
A Vicious Cycle
The vicious cycle that exists in emotional eating causes issues and problem to multiply to further increase your waistline. While emotional eating can give you a quick vacation from the reality, it piles more problems on top of issues not yet dealt with, such as the guilt and shame related to eating behind emotions.
As time goes on emotional eating prevents you from learning healthy coping skills for your emotions that further increases your emotional distress, so you can continue to rely on food more and more to suppress your feelings.
Whatever problems or emotions are driving you to eat; the result is always the same. The undealt with feelings that caused you to eat will still be there, but now there is also the shame, guilt and other feelings associated with the emotional eating. This vicious cycle only propagates weight gain further.
Emotional eating can turn to impulsive eating or mindless eating. In mindless eating, you will reach for food without much thought, as an instant response or habit and usually will not even realize what or how much you have eaten and without feeling any joy of consuming it.
This can become so habitual that you may immediately grab a treat during stress or boredom without ever noticing that you did so, leading to more weight gain and sabotage of any weight loss efforts.
Emotional eating is not a healthy way to deal with negative emotions, but there are several methods that are.
5 Common emotional eating triggers
Here are some common contributors to the emotional eating problem that can lead to poor physical health and emotional and psychological consequences with feelings, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
⦁ Lack Of Healthy Coping Skills
Emotional eaters do not know to deal with negative emotions or how to process feelings, and so food becomes their coping mechanism. This type of reactionary and self-defeating behavior is a habit that needs to be replaced with constructive and healthy coping mechanisms.
Many who eat behind emotions are unaware that a problem exists. Their reactionary behavior in reaching for food when discomfort hits is a habit. In psychology, this is known as unconscious eating. This type of mindless behavior can also mean eating just because the food is there, whether hungry or not and regardless of planned meal times.
⦁ Food Is Used For Pleasure
Food addiction is a very real thing, in fact, sugar, fat and other junk stimulate pleasure centers in the brain, just as cocaine and heroin that can cause real brain changes that lead to dependence.
The emotional eater needs to identify and utilize other, healthier forms of pleasure to cope with uncomfortable and painful feelings.
⦁ Childhood Conditioning
Children often grow up with adult perceptions towards processing feelings being inflicted upon them so they learn dysfunctional habits in dealing with their emotions. Many times, when kids are hurt or in pain, mom may offer a cookie or ice cream. Fathers teach their little boys not to cry, and the kids at school tease criers. Children take these learned unhealthy coping mechanisms into adulthood, and because they lack the healthy skills to cope, many choose food as a coping mechanism.
⦁ Poor Self-Image And Body Hate
Self-defeating behavior rarely makes sense and in the case of emotional eating, it is sort of an oxymoron. For many emotional eaters there is a profound hatred of their body, but instead of looking at healthy habit changes to improve this situation, they eat more. This is usually a reaction to the guilt and shame that they feel as a result of that hatred.
18 Healthy Ways To Deal With Emotions
There are many ways that you can deal with emotions that don’t include turning to food for comfort. Below are some suggestions as well as why they are effective and how you can incorporate them into your life.
Awareness Is Half The Battle
Understanding your emotional eating habits and identifying triggers is the crucial first step in the beginning to recover from emotional eating.
Keep A Food Journal
Keeping an eating diary is a great way to gain insight into your eating patterns, as they are related to emotions or otherwise. This practice allows you to identify important connections between when, how much, what, and why you eat throughout the day helping you to identify emotional eating triggers.
A simple notebook that includes these facts is all you need:
⦁ What you ate and at what times
⦁ Portion sizes
⦁ Feelings before, during, and after eating and any obvious triggers
⦁ Thoughts, feelings, and reactions you felt each time after eating
Regular record keeping will allow you to study the data and identify patterns and connections in your eating habits, and since awareness is the first step towards recovery, this is a very useful practice.
Meditation is a great way to cope with difficult emotions. It is a cessation of the thought process which allows you to understand why you feel the way you feel. Meditation allows the mind to be calm and free from agitation.
If you are experiencing emotions that you are completely unsure of how to cope with, it is a great idea to reach out to a professional for help. A professional can help you get to the root of your emotions and help you to cope with them in a healthy way.
This is highly advised for those with moderate to severe emotional eating issues. A good therapist can help you deal with emotional eating on various levels, so you can get healthy once and for all.
This is a very effective way to deal with pent-up frustrations, anger, and stress. When you are exercising, you are releasing feel-good endorphins through your brain, and you are often left feeling less stressed out and frustrated after a workout than you were before you started.
Support groups are great for people who are coping with emotions including pain and heartbreak. Regardless of the situation, you are going through, and chances are there is someone who has gone through something similar and can relate to how you are feeling and make you feel less alone. If you can’t find a support group that meets physically in your area, you should be able to find one through social media.
Get Some Sleep
Many times, fatigue causes your emotions to seem more extreme than they are. Not getting enough sleep can also cause you to eat more than you otherwise would. Ensuring that you are getting enough sleep helps to ensure you are in the right frame of mind to help you process all of your emotions without feeling as easily overwhelmed.
Yoga combines the benefits of exercise and meditation into one activity. When you are participating in yoga, you need to focus on how you are breathing as well as how you are moving your body. This is a great way to help you work through stress and boredom.
Yoga is also a practice that teaches mindfulness to help you get in touch with your body, which can help you to identify true hunger, versus emotional hunger.
You may have already noticed that when you are stressed out, you tend to rub your temples. Self-massage is incredibly effective for helping to relieve stress. It is also a great way to keep your mind focused and your hands occupied. Another option is to go for professional massages to help you relax and distress.
Enjoy A Cup Of Tea
If you find that when you are watching TV, you like to have something to snack on, a cup of tea is a great alternative. It allows you to mindlessly sip on something warm which keeps your hands and your mouth busy.
If you are the kind of person who likes to snack while you are working or studying, chewing gum is a great alternative. The motion of chewing gum is similar to nibbling on chips or cookies, which allow you to get the same gratification from gum as you, would from snacking.
Go For A Walk
Getting out into the fresh air is a great way to help clear your mind. When you are struggling to cope with emotion, going for a walk, brisk or slow, can go a long way to helping you get to the root of the issue and work through your thoughts without interruptions.
Use Worry Beads
Keeping worry beads in your hand is a great way to work off nervous energy. Worry beads have been used to help people overcome addictive behaviors and break bad habits for a long time with great success.
Find A Hobby
Another option of keeping your hands and mind busy when you are dealing with emotions is to take up a hobby. Taking up crocheting, knitting, painting, drawing, or gardening will keep you busy and help you deal with the emotions that normally lead to you reaching for food.
Practice Mindful Breathing
When you find that your emotions are taking over every thought, focusing on your breathing can help bring you back to present and stop those emotions from completely controlling you. When you are focusing on your breathing, you aren’t changing your breathing, but rather just acknowledging each breath as a way to clear your mind and reset your thoughts.
Call A Friend
Regardless of what emotion it is that you find lead you to the kitchen, stop, and call a friend. If it is a negative emotion that you are struggling with, a friend can offer you comfort and support and help you get through the pain. If it is a positive emotion, a friend can help you celebrate without food.
This is one of the healthier physical activities to deal with emotions. Journaling, drawing, gardening, knitting, and painting are some excellent methods of self-expression to deal with feelings.
Think Through Emotions
Critical thinking is a fantastic skill, and by developing your ability to think through and process feelings, you can learn how to cope with them.
Typically, in the emotional eating cycle, eaters only get as far as the initial urge to eat when that certain trigger feeling hits as they head straight to the kitchen for food. Stopping to think, identifying how you feel and the reasons behind it and then considering alternatives can detract you from engaging in destructive emotional eating.
Through mindfulness, focus, awareness, and intentionality, you can put an end to emotional eating and begin the journey to a healthier mind and body.
Final Thoughts about the Emotional Eating
If you find yourself reaching for food every time you are experiencing an emotion, you are probably also noticing the number on the scale slowly climbing as well. Although the cycle may seem impossible to break, you aren’t doomed to a life of obesity and using food to help you cope with your emotions.
Before you can begin coping with emotional eating, you first need to realize your unhealthy patterns. Start tracking when and what you are eating. If you are noticing that you are eating when you are not hungry and are experiencing intense cravings for comfort foods, you likely need to find better ways to cope with your emotions.
Emotional eating often occurs simply because the tools for coping with emotions are not present. If you are willing to look deeper into why you are reaching for food, you are more likely to be able to come up with healthier solutions. If you can’t figure out what is leading you to emotional eating, reach out to a trained professional for help.
Not only are they going to be able to guide you to the cause of your emotional eating, but they are also going to be able to guide you through overcoming it.
Emotional eating may seem like a cycle that you are never going to be free of. However, by using the tools in this report along with some hard work and dedication, you can learn better ways to cope with your emotions and soon be using food only to fuel your body.
Did I Miss Anything?
Now we’d love to hear from you. Let us know what you thought of this article by leaving a comment below. Thank you!
Discover 10 of the best Angela Oliver’s courses that you can take for free today!
Social Connections and Longevity FREE Course
The Psychology of Happiness
The Shoulds That Hold Us Back-FREE Course
Essential Oils Healing Properties
How To Shift Your Mindset?
Essential Oils: The Complete Guide
Wellness at The Spa
Healthy Aging with Relationships
Prevention of Chronic Disease with Nutrition