combat emotional eating

Emotional Toolkit to Combat Emotional Eating

April 12, 2021

Create Your Emotional Toolkit to Combat Emotional Eating: Do you have an emotional toolkit? Have you ever thought about putting one together that supports you when you want to feed your head hunger (emotional eating)? Using the information below about the complex issue of emotional eating, you CAN combat emotional eating!

Understanding Why We Eat

There are several reasons why we eat, such as physical, external, and emotional hunger. Research shows that we make 200 decisions about food a day. Moods such as depression, happiness, and stress can influence eating and drinking choices.

Physical Hunger

Physical hunger is an innate need for nutrients to create energy.  It can come with a feeling of emptiness in your stomach (pouch), stomach pain, grumbling, rumbling, or growling. It can include dizziness, fainting, lightheadedness, headaches, irritability, lack of concentration, and nausea.  Listen to your body and ask yourself if you are hungry. 

combat emotional eating

Be completely honest with your hunger level. If after asking yourself this question and the answer is not completely a “yes,” then you are yielding to emotional hunger.

Understanding Chemical Reactions

Training begins in infancy when feeding involves closeness and attention from our mother, producing oxytocin. This is a chemical in the brain associated with soothing and relieving pain. At this age, food is linked with happiness and sleep. As a toddler, we learn to associate food with exploration and mastering control. Unhealthy food such as sweet treats was usually reserved for rewards. 

Over time, our brain develops a reward pathway from food to pleasure.  Originally, feeding was designed to eat when hungry and stop when satisfied. Anything else is a product of conditioning.

When your brain experiences stress, your emotional brain submits to your primitive brain. The higher the stress, the more we succumb to reactionary and unconscious primitive behaviors.  When stress threatens, insulin levels fall, glucagon and epinephrine (adrenaline) rise and glucose is released, raising blood sugar levels. 

Our brain yearns soothing. Each time we eat to soothe, we modified the brain reward pathway. In effect, we train our emotional brain through repetition to seek food as comfort. Therefore, it takes work to retrain the brain.

Psychological Hunger

Emotional eating is related to hunger associated with an emotion or thought that produces a desire to eat. Everyone at some point in their life is guilty of emotional eating. Our sensation of satisfaction can vary from day to day depending on what is going on in your life. This is why there are times we emotionally over-eat and other times we do not. Sometimes we feel ready to acknowledge emotions, and other times we want to avoid them.

Recognize the root of emotional eating. Build awareness of triggers to improve your stress resiliency.  Learn to handle stress in a more productive way by practicing new coping strategies. This is restraint training from overeating or mindless eating. 

We are loyal to our dysfunction, so we must work against it on a regular basis. We continue to eat or snack even after we are full because it is in some way providing an emotional benefit. 

Over the years, we have conditioned ourselves to have a hand-to-mouth reaction that is hypnotic. You could be in the middle of a meal and physically full but continue to eat to the point of pain such as stomach ache, heartburn, or reflux.

Learn to put your fork down and wait. Listen to your body. Are you comfortable? Pause midway through your meal to remind yourself the food on your plate is not necessary for your emotional well-being. Distract your mind by engaging with others or step away from the table. Learn how to combat emotional eating.

External Cues

Cues in our environment can trigger a sensation to want food. Often a stimulation of the senses can trigger emotional hunger. Seeing a fast-food sign, an advertisement gives permission or a mental prompt to eat.  Similarly, smells provide the perfect conduit for mental hunger. Time is another unspoken cue to eat. Many of us have trained our minds to desire food at a certain time of day. 

For example, you see it’s noon and tell yourself, I must eat lunch, or I “need” an evening snack. Other external prompts include traditions and rituals. Growing up, I did not have dessert for every meal. However, inadvertently I have created a ritual in my home that we look forward to ending a meal with a sweet treat. This in itself is not unhealthy if portion size, time eaten, frequency, and fullness are considered. It is, however, not the best choice if it becomes an automatic habit. 

The same is true for traditionally overeating during holidays or drinking too much at celebrations. Geographic location may stir nostalgia associated with food.  For example, craving grandmother’s cooking or baking when you visit her.

Tools for Your Emotional Toolkit

  • Make a list. Write down a list of things you love to do that are good distractions. When you find yourself emotionally distressed, look at your list to find an outlet. Carry the list with you in the event you need it.
    How to make it happen: Grab a piece of paper and fold it in half. On the left side, write down the emotions that make you eat. On the right side, write the activities you could do instead of eating.
  • Count. Slowly count from 1 to 10 before embarking on finding food to eat or placing something in your mouth. If, after counting to 10, you can identify that it is physical hunger, then give yourself permission to eat. 
    How to make it happen: Ask yourself before you take a bite, "Am I eating out of hunger, the need to have nutrients in my body, or is it a reaction to an emotion?"
  • Create a decision tree. Ask yourself several questions before taking the next bite. This can also be used before purchasing a certain food. Is this food going to help me reach my goal weight? Is it beyond the caloric intake that I need? Am I stressed or have an emotion that is triggering my hunger?
    How to make it happen: If your answer is yes, then decide on an activity that is not eating. If it is, maybe, do a short activity, then ask yourself the questions again. Only eat if you can honestly answer no; I am not eating as a result of an emotional trigger.
  • Get to know yourself. Make time to be in solitude with your thoughts and feelings. 
    How to make it happen: Practice asking yourself questions about why you emotionally eat. What thoughts trigger me to seek out food as a comfort? Also, ask yourself, am I enough? What are you telling yourself that is leading you to search for self-soothing in food? Understand how what you tell yourself can influence an action. You will not change your behavior if you don’t know what you believe.
  • Write about change. Think about the times in your life you’ve made long-lasting changes.
    How to make it happen: Write down major changes in behavior or attitude you’ve made recently. When did those changes occur? Were you feeling cared for, safe? Be specific about the process of change. This provides a map to how you work through the process of change. We each have our unique motivators and paths.
  • Talk to yourself. We all talk to ourselves whether or not we admit it.
    How to make it happen: Imagine that your emotional eating has a voice and a name. What would you name that person? Ask what does it want? What does it need? How was it trying to help you? Speak up and tell this voice it’s going to be OK. Enter into a self-dialogue where you can begin to create an internal communication with your emotions and unhealthy choices.

Tips to Manage Emotional Eating

An emotional toolkit to combat emotional eating is a good way to begin retraining, break automatic eating cycles. 

  • Emotional Conversations: Attempt not to have emotional conversations while you eat. 
  • Be Aware of Overwhelming Emotions: An overwhelming sense of anger, sadness, or embarrassment can lead to poor eating and drinking choices.  
  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind: If you do not see food, then you are less likely to be tempted. Keep food out of sight if it is not a mealtime. When you place food on your plate, remind yourself it is for sustenance first and foremost.
  • Attachments: Find secure, healthy attachments. When overwhelmed, we can become emotionally paralyzed, hyper-aroused, or numb. During a disruption in attachment, your brain creates a bias where it focuses on negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences, promoting avoidance of the issue. This is when we are at high risk of emotional eating. Thus, having healthy relationships, a support system, joining exercise, socialization, and emotional support groups forces us to look outward versus internalizing emotions that lead to eating. In some cases, reach out to mental health professionals to get a better perspective on problems, losses, or traumas. Keep in mind that some mental health issues, including seasonal affective disorder, premenstrual syndrome, depression, and nicotine withdrawal, have been noted to be related to overeating.
  • Gather Joy: Gather moments of joy to activate reward neural pathways. Retrain your brain to find joy in new areas other than food or drink. For some, this may include looking at pictures or videos that make you smile. Look for positive memes or inspirational quotes to use as mantras during times you want to emotionally eat. Incorporate regular check-ins with deep breathing to develop a soothing routine to use in times of distress. Find a release for feelings you are avoiding or cause distress through journaling, exercise, music, reading, or even cuddling with a pet. Create a positive environment that includes laughter. Challenge yourself to live a healthier lifestyle.

Combat Emotional Eating: Conclusion

The key is to create new pathways to pleasure, aside from eating. Once you retrain your brain, you break a cycle of using food to soothe. Remaining vigilant is important to understand your emotional eating style. 

Have an arsenal of distractions ready when you want to eat your feelings.  Sometimes it's as simple as drinking water or taking a walk. However, there are times when you must work on yourself to understand what emotions you're avoiding or numbing with food.

combat emotional eating
Bertha Rodarte


Bertha Rodarte, MA, PhD is a bilingual (English/Spanish) licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in health psychology. She earned her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Rodarte has over 13 years of experience with bariatric patients. She provides pre-op psychological evaluations for WLS and therapy for patients needing additional support.
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