Emotional eating is a common coping mechanism where we turn to food for comfort during times of stress, sadness, or boredom. It leads us to consume food in response to emotions, especially negative feelings, instead of hunger. 

People more prone to emotional eating are those who

  • Struggle to identify how they feel and why,
  • Have trouble regulating their emotions, and
  • Are highly susceptible to stress.

While emotional eating may provide temporary relief, it often leads to guilt. Emotional eating is unhealthy, both physically and emotionally. It can lead to overeating because it isn’t filling your need for nutrients or calories. Your body doesn’t need food: it needs emotional soothing. In this article, we will explore the common signs of emotional eating as well as effective strategies to help you break free from it and develop a healthier relationship with food.

Common Signs of Emotional Eating

You already know what you need to do to lose weight and how to proceed. You know about nutrition, how to eat healthy, fat burning, calorie counting, and muscle building. And you really want to change your relationship with food. That’s why you have been trying for so long. For you, the key to success is not information, education, skills, or willpower. You already have all of them. Food is not an issue for emotional eaters. Food is how they cope with their issues.

You have tried a “plan” or two that didn’t work—or maybe all the plans. They probably didn’t work, because there’s no one-size-fits-all “formula” for emotional eating. How you will overcome it can only be defined by you, and guilt doesn’t belong anywhere in that equation. Most of the time, the answer isn’t about controlling yourself. It’s about relief, freedom, and a touch of pleasure.

Emotional eating is when you use food to make yourself feel better. Emotional eaters fill their stomachs, but their emotional needs remain unmet, creating even more cravings.

Here are some signs that you may be an emotional eater:

  • You eat when you are stressed
  • You eat in response to your emotions
  • You seek solace in food
  • You have difficulties losing weight because you can’t stay on an eating protocol for more than a few weeks
  • You can’t stop eating when your mind decides to: you eat until your cravings are satisfied, whether you feel full or not, sometimes until you hurt
  • You eat to feel happy
  • You obsess about food
  • You use food as a reward
  • You binge eat
  • You eat impulsively

All of us emotionally eat to some extent. That’s quite normal because food intrinsically has an emotional component to it. But if you recognize three or more of your own eating behaviors in this list, it’s likely that emotional eating has evolved into a more significant issue in your life.

Identify Your Emotional Eating Triggers to Help You Break Free from Emotional Eating

While diet and exercise are important in a weight loss process, experimenting with yet another diet will likely not make any difference for an emotional trying to lose weight. They need to focus on the root causes that have created their eating behaviors, and how to change their way of eating sustainably.

Emotional eating often involves using food as a distraction or source of comfort. Stress, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, or certain environments can act as catalysts. You can learn to recognize the emotional cues that usually lead you to emotional eating. Gaining insight into the underlying causes that lead you to food when not hungry will help you take proactive steps to address your emotions without relying on food.

To regulate your emotional eating, a key step is identifying your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.

Stress. Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It is not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, i.e., cortisol, which triggers cravings for foods giving you a burst of energy and pleasure, aka salty, sweet, and fried foods. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. What stressful situations have led you to food lately?

Stuffing emotions. Emotional eaters use food to temporarily silence uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel. What emotions are you most uncomfortable feeling? Why?

Boredom or feelings of emptiness. Sometimes, we eat as a way to simply give ourselves something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in our life. When we feel unfulfilled and empty, eating is a way to keep our mouths and ourselves busy. While in the moment, it can give us the sensation to fill up and distract us from our original feelings of purposelessness or dissatisfaction with our life, emotional eating doesn’t help us effective steps to change what creates our dissatisfaction. What are you currently not satisfied with, in your life? What would you like to see happen instead?

Childhood habits. Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? We often carry these same habits over into adulthood. Emotional eating may also be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of, for example, grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom. What are the childhood habits around food you are still practicing today? How do they make you feel? How can you nurture these feelings without the help of food?

Social influences. I don’t know a better way to relieve stress than getting together with other people for a meal – I am French, so I might be partial here! – but it can also lead to overeating, simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. Some of us may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. In addition, some family members or friends sometimes encourage us to overeat, and it’s easier to just go along with the group. What social influences lead you to overeat? What can you do to limit their impact on your eating choices?

For some of us, emotional eating may be deeply ingrained, and seeking professional guidance can be invaluable. Reclaiming control over your eating habits and fostering a healthier relationship with food and with yourself can be difficult, but it is possible. You can start your journey by getting my free e-Book here, and learn how emotional eating began for you.  

What are your main triggers leading you to eat your emotions? What strategies do you use to limit your emotional eating? Let us know in the comments.

Recommended Articles