How to End Emotional Eating by Decoding TriggersDecember 14, 2020
If you are trying to end emotional eating and heal your relationship with food, then this article is for you!
As a psychologist specializing in weight management, I have heard this said by countless patients: “If someone would just tell me what to eat, I could lose this weight.” It is true that eating a healthy, balanced diet can promote weight loss, but being told what types of foods to eat is really only a small piece of the puzzle. (And let’s be honest – most of us know which foods are healthier). The rest of the puzzle involves not what you eat, but why you eat. Urges to eat can be difficult to decode.
What is Emotional Eating?
It is natural for us to eat for many reasons aside from hunger. We eat because food looks or smells good, because it is a holiday tradition, or because we want to celebrate. Sometimes we even eat when we are upset. If only done on rare occasions, this is normal.
Emotional eating is when food becomes your go-to strategy to cope with unpleasant feelings.
If your first impulse is to open the refrigerator or pantry when you’re upset, you can get stuck in a difficult and unhealthy cycle where the real problem is ignored, stuffed away, and not actually dealt with. This, in turn, can lead to emotional and physical health problems.
Other characteristics of emotional eating include:
- Feeling out of control or powerless around food
- Using food as a reward
- Receiving a sense of comfort and security from food
- Feeling that food is a friend
- Eating to feel better
What is NOT Emotional Eating?
Everyone makes poor food choices from time to time. Simply eating too much or eating a food that is not on your meal plan is not necessarily emotional eating. Emotional eating is less about what you actually choose to eat and more about why you are eating it. Getting fast food because you were too busy to meal plan, or eating too much pasta because it’s what the restaurant gave you is not emotional eating. The key to understanding emotional eating is to identify your personal triggers to eat.
Some of the common causes of emotional eating include:
- Social Connection
How does this happen?
For some folks, emotional eating behavior can start as early as childhood. This may especially be true if your parents used food to reward you (good grades = ice cream!), soothe you (bad day at school = brownies!), or even punish you (bad behavior = no dessert!). Or perhaps you found comfort in food to escape abuse or trauma.
Over time, the more we turn to food as a way to get rid of our emotions, the stronger the link between emotions and food becomes. For some people, this happens so much that they no longer even realize the role food plays in their lives until their weight is out of control. Struggling with weight can cause a host of new problems (health conditions, chronic pain, shame and guilt) that in turn lead to even more emotional eating. It’s time to stop the cycle.
Decoding Your Triggers
Because emotional eating can become a habit, you might not even realize when you are doing it. Many folks confuse hunger which is physical (biological or natural) and hunger which is emotional (food cravings or “head hunger”). But there’s a significant difference.
Emotional hunger comes on quickly and feels like it needs to be satisfied right away, while physical hunger builds up gradually over time and can wait if needed. Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods (salty, sweet, crunchy, etc.), while physical hunger is open to a variety of foods, including healthy options.
Emotional hunger causes feelings of guilt, powerlessness, shame, and regret after the eating is over, while physical hunger does not.
To help end emotional eating, get in the habit of checking in with yourself before you eat. Ask yourself some questions:
Once you identify that you are not physically hungry, you can figure out what else is going on. I love this old saying: “If hunger is not the problem, then eating is not the answer.”
Emotions are Messages
The next step when trying to end emotional eating might be the hardest: Labeling and coping with the emotions that you have been trying to ignore. When an emotion feels bad, it is tempting to say, “I shouldn’t feel this,” and just push the feeling away with food.
But stuffed emotions don’t go away. Emotions that we repress sit around, just waiting to pop back up. The longer we ignore them, the worse we feel. Even when unpleasant, emotions are actually designed to be helpful because their job is to keep us safe. Emotions are a message that something isn’t right and we need it to change.
When we allow ourselves to feel an emotion, it can begin to fade away. According to Dr. Laura Markham, “Once the message has been delivered, the emotion is ‘processed’.”1 In other words, we have received the information the emotion was trying to deliver and the emotion is no longer needed.
The next time you feel the urge to eat and you know you are not physically hungry, try checking in with yourself about what emotion you are feeling.
This can help your mind “deliver” the message of your emotion. Then you can find something to do to help you cope with the feelings, whatever they are.
Alternatives to Emotional Eating
The best kinds of coping strategies to end emotional eating should be realistic for you to do right now. They should be activities that you are physically, financially, and mentally capable of doing. For example, don’t choose exercise if you have chronic pain that makes mobility difficult, or if you feel like exercise is a chore. Don’t choose a hobby that you have to buy a lot of expensive equipment for. Choose something that you can do right now; not after you lose weight, change jobs, retire, or clean out your basement.
Some examples of things you might try include:
MUSIC: Listen to an upbeat song, sing in the shower or the car, play an instrument, dance!
CRAFT: Color in a coloring book, sew, knit, crochet, paint, try a woodworking project, make jewelry, scrapbook, take photos, do a word search or puzzle.
EXPRESS: Call a friend or family member who is a good listener, read or write poetry, send a card to someone, write down things you are thankful for, pray, let yourself cry.
MOVE: Stretch, take a walk, squeeze a stress ball, play with a fidget spinner, pop bubble wrap, clean or organize something in your home, window shop, go outside.
SOOTHE: Take a hot bath or shower, light a scented candle, try a refreshing lotion, wrap up in a warm blanket, light a fire in the fireplace, listen to a guided meditation recording, read a magazine, look at cherished photos.
Challenging your urge to emotionally eat is not easy. It will not happen overnight. There will be slip-ups, and it is important to forgive yourself for these. It is also important to remember that even when you have lost weight, the emotional pain and stress that you have in your life now will still be there. A life without strife is a fantasy. But you can learn to feel negative emotions and to still be okay – with or without food.
1 Markham, L. (2018). Peaceful parent, happy kids workbook. PESI, Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChristina Rowan is a clinical psychologist in the Weight Management Institute at Summa Health. She received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at The University of Akron and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in health psychology with a specialization in bariatrics at Cleveland Clinic. She provides individual and group counseling, assessment, and support services to patients struggling with weight or eating-related concerns.
Read more articles from Dr. Rowan!