difficult emotions without food

How to Tolerate Difficult Emotions Without Food

May 17, 2021

Do you have a problem dealing with difficult emotions without food? For many, food and excess eating is literally their best friend. It is always there for them to access in any amount. It fictitiously gives a quick way out of what is truly bothering them. It can artificially fulfill needs within a few bites and provide comfort for almost every unwanted feeling that arises.

Further, it is an excellent form of celebration. It can fill up dead spaces to prevent boredom and provide a mindless distraction to unwind. It is a great partner in crime when trying to make difficult decisions quicker than we are ready to make them.

However, the price to pay is excess weight, increased health risks, and more complicated emotions added to the pile of ones that ignited the difficult emotions without food in the first place.

The Emotional Eating Cycle

difficult emotions without food

Emotional eating is the process of using food to make yourself feel better—to fill emotional needs rather than your stomach. Unfortunately, emotional eating does not fix emotional problems; it usually makes them worse. Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating. This creates a vicious cycle and mounting chaos that will need to be addressed.

Physical hunger will give you a physical cue. You will hear and feel a rumbling in your stomach. It usually occurs between 4-6 hours after your last meal. Those who have had bariatric surgery can be 3-5 hours as the portions per meal are smaller. Time and physical signals will let you know it is, in fact, physical hunger. From a nutritional standpoint, protein and fats keep you fuller much longer than carbohydrates so that you can use that as a guide as well. Everything else that signals a need to eat is usually an emotional response that can lead to emotional eating.

Other characteristics of emotional hunger are:

  • Emotional hunger comes on instantaneously
  • Emotional eating triggers an emotional assessment of guilt, shame, failure
  • Emotional hunger is never 'full or satisfied.'
  • Emotional hunger will eat until the food is gone with limited tasting
  • Emotional hunger will seek out specific foods such as sweets, carbs, fast food, snacks, etc.
  • Emotional hunger sparks exaggerated starvation
  • Emotional hunger will create behavioral outbursts such as anger, rage
  • Emotional hunger is usually coupled with lying about portions consumed

Tips To Tolerate Difficult Emotions Without Food

In order to fix something, you have to know what it is and where it started.

As humans, we only do things that serve a purpose, whether it is to prevent an unwanted emotion or ignite one. Identifying why emotions are difficult is your first step in solving them. We often think the issues are about food, or lack of control, willpower, or motivation.

Food is rarely, if ever, the problem. If you take food out of the equation, you will have the original problems at hand.  Not wanting to feel them is a normal response; however, going to excess food is not.

Food is the crutch, and let us face it, we would much rather deal with a food issue than a life issue.

Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. They can take you back to a place in time that you may have spent years to bury. However, those unhealed experiences are still affecting you physically, even if you choose to ignore them emotionally. This distraction over time will convince you of a 'food problem' instead of a 'life problem.' What can you do to begin addressing these emotions?


Learn to feel and not feed

Acknowledging that something makes you feel scared, mad, lonely, or uncertain can begin to release its power over you. Suddenly it does not seem so impossible, even if you do not have the answers yet.


Wait five minutes before you bring food into the situation

Once the food is eaten, the numbing begins, and the likelihood of solving the life issue is diminished. It can be instinctual to reach for food when the knots start in your stomach. Buy some time by verbally telling yourself: If I cannot handle it in 5 minutes, I will overeat. Admit what you are doing so the consequences occur at the beginning of the downfall, not after it is over. It is essential to keep your power even in the chaos.


Seek support

Reach out to a counselor, support group, or trusted friend when the crisis hits, especially if it requires more than a simple decision. This is a time where journaling becomes handy if there is no immediate outreach available to you.


Fix when food is calm

When your food intake is under control, begin addressing issues that send you to food for comfort. Is it loneliness, a dead-end job, relationship, or family friction? Take each one and established boundaries and solutions for them. In doing so, if you 'feel the need to eat,' then use food as a guide telling you to stop for the day. You have had enough and get on with your regular routine.

Excess eating only comes in when we are sending signals of distress. Whether it is physically, mentally, or emotionally the bond with food is to help. Food is doing precisely what we want it to do. Come in [intake] and fix, bury, or aid you as you sort out the situation.

Managing your difficult emotions without food is key to any successful weight loss program. The rules for losing weight are relatively similar to lower calories to a point less than your body needs, healthier choices to improve longevity, and physical exercise to work the body for optimum performance.

Needing food to survive and using it as a crutch, vice, or escape technique doubles or triples the intake. The emotional triggers must be identified, solved, or managed.

Alternatives to Overeating

Once you have identified, some of your emotional triggers became creating your new normal.

  • If you are sad, lonely, or depressed, seek out your current circle of friends or begin making new ones. Open up your world to new experiences and people that begin to add to your life in fulfilling ways.
  • If you are anxious or nervous, put the extra energy toward a new hobby, starting your own business, rearranging your house, or doing work outside. Take an active approach to get up, move, and do something constructed to subside the internal rush.
  • If you are exhausted or tired, learn to rest, and not eat. Even if you have a list of items to complete, take a power nap, and make sure you are getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • If you are bored, find something constructive to do. Get out of the house and go visiting people, go for a walk or learn more about your city. Sign up for volunteer work at your local people or pet shelters, hospitals, zoos, or museums.

Tolerate Difficult Emotions Without Food: Summary

Managing your weight requires managing your emotions. Whether they are deep or embedded unhealed experiences or poor coping skills that have never been corrected, you will see more significant results when you put your energy into managing the emotions instead of the food.

difficult emotions without food
Debra Taylor


Dr. Debra Taylor, Ph.D., M.S. is founder of "Weight, WHAT? Food Addictions Center" working with surgical and non-surgical weight loss clients for pre and post care and long term support. She is a national and international motivational speaker and trainer for addictions, obesity, finding purpose and living your best life. Read more articles by Dr. Taylor!