Emotional eating is a compulsion. We eat when we are not hungry, and we cannot stop.

Emotional eating also is a coping mechanism. We eat in response to uncomfortable emotions, and we reach for food to suppress and soothe them. We often perceive those feelings as negative, like anger, sadness or anxiety.

 

Symptoms of Emotional Eating

Each of us is unique and eats their emotions for very personal reasons. We all also face specific triggers, depending on our life history. Although there are many symptoms of emotional eating, here are a few signs that a lot of us share:
  • Stress-eating,
  • night-eating and/or when we are by ourselves,
  • Eating when we feel feel sad / annoyed / disappointed / angry / lonely / empty / anxious/ tired / bored… reaching out for food without even thinking about it,
  • Seeking solace in food, reaching out for comfort food whenever we feel down,
  • Having trouble losing weight. Even though we know what to do and we want to lose weight, we have issues sticking to a healthy lifestyle,
  • Keep on eating even when we feel full. Our stomach tells us it had enough, but we still don’t feel satisfied,
  • Experiencing random food cravings. We get urges to eat certain food, that we cannot explain.

What Emotional Eating is Not

The primary difference between emotional eating and binge eating involves the amount of food that is consumed. Binge eating involves having trouble resisting the urge to consume more calories than are needed to stay healthy. Both emotional eating and binge eating may involve a sense of trouble controlling cravings for food. But emotional eating may involve consuming from moderate to great amounts of food. Binge Eating, on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of compulsive overeating. During an episode, we uncontrollably eat an amount of food significantly larger than average, even when we are not hungry. We eat much faster than normal. We conceal the amount of food we eat out of shame. And may feel disgusted by our eating after doing so.

Emotional Eating is not Bulimia

Bulimia involves recurring cycles of excessive food consumption – binges –. They are followed by compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, or over-exercise. These behaviors are attempts to counteract the calories consumed and subsequent presumed weight gain. During a binge, there is a sense of loss of control. While we have a desire to stop eating, we feel unable to do so. In bulimia, self-worth and self-evaluation are disproportionately based on body size and shape.

Emotional Eating is not Food Addiction

Food addiction is an addiction to junk food, comparable to drug addiction. It involves the same areas of the brain as drug addiction. The effects of certain foods on the brain make it hard for some of us to avoid them, no matter how hard we try. Despite not wanting to, we may repeatedly find ourselves eating large amounts of unhealthy foods — knowing that doing so may cause harm. All these eating behaviors can be connected, one potentially leading to another, and sometimes experienced at the same time. Emotional eating might be at the root of some of them. For example, I often turned to sugary treats to soothe my difficult emotions, and consequently developed a sugar addiction, in addition to my emotional eating.

 

How to Conquer Emotional Eating

 

What Doesn’t Work

Most of the existing advice to stop emotional eating address the symptom, that is us, eating. They focus on the moment we eat, what we eat and how much we eat. I was told multiple times to keep a food diary, fight boredom, practice a stress management technique (such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing), meal prep, snack healthy, establish a daily fitness regimen… and go brush my teeth every time I want to eat. I failed every time because by doing so, we don’t solve what creates the urge to eat. We can manage our symptoms and eat less for a few weeks. But what creates our need for emotional eating is still there. We are eventually back to our usual routine because the root causes are not addressed, and the only way we feel we can deal with them is by eating. As long as the original reasons for our emotional eating are not uncovered, we cannot change our eating behavior. Since the issue is not resolved, it’s a matter of time before it recurs, bringing the same emotions as before, and triggering the same answer from us: eating. We get stuck in a loop where we experience the same situation over and over, and along with it, the same emotions.
Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it. Oprah Winfrey

 

The Path to Emotional Eating Recovery

The way to stop emotional eating is to address what we have been avoiding, using food. We need to embrace how we really feel and to understand what makes us feel this way. Why do we feel sad, annoyed, disappointed, angry, lonely, empty, anxious, tired, or bored to begin with? Where did the emotion spring from? How long has it been there? What triggered it? And how? Once we know what makes us feel bad, we can act and bring change. When we don’t need to cope with our everyday life, there is no need for emotional eating anymore. Bringing change in our life often involves making difficult decisions and reconsidering some of our choices and/or relationships. We may need help, guidance and/or support along the way. I have identified some specific root causes for emotional eating that many of us experience. I also built a step-by-step process to identify how they unfold in our lives, resolve them, and cancel their pattern from our daily routine, so that we build a healthier relationship with food. There is a purposeful and meaningful life waiting for you, that you can enjoy without the help of food.
Marion Holt
Marion Holt

Certified Professional Coach, Marion Holt has been an emotional eater since childhood. She has lived with morbid obesity. No longer. She shares specific behavioral expertise and techniques for efficiently recovering from emotional eating, as she has experienced firsthand the forces at work. With her own recovery and her professional training, Marion has helped many others going through their own journey to a healthier relationship with food – and a much more fulfilled life.