I’ve been there. It starts with a handful of carrots, moves to a few pieces of cheese, and the next thing you know, you’re elbow deep in a tub of ice cream.
You go to bed exhausted and sick, feeling out of control and like you’re sabotaging yourself.
Can you relate? It’s called emotional eating, and it happens more often than you might think. You don’t always have to clean out your fridge in one night to fall victim to emotional eating, either.
This phenomenon can strike at any time, when you find yourself eating for reasons other than satisfying actual physical hunger.
How to Recognize and Stop Emotional Eating
We don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We also turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. It usually makes you feel worse. Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating.
Learning to recognize your emotional eating triggers is the first step to breaking free from food cravings and compulsive overeating, and changing the habits that have sabotaged your diets in the past.
Understanding emotional eating
Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach.
Using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re upset, angry, lonely, stressed, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you consumed. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower. Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight, and you feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings.
Are you an emotional eater?
• Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
• Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
• Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
• Do you reward yourself with food?
• Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
• Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
• Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger
Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.
Emotional hunger can be powerful. As a result, it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for that can help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.
• Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
• Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
• Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
• Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
• Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
• Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
I’ve come up with five powerful tools for how to put an end to emotional eating for good. Following these steps takes practice and a little bravery, but if you follow them not only will you stop eating emotionally, but you’ll also learn to start enjoying your food — and your life — in a whole new way.
1. Don’t abandon yourself.
Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort, providing a momentary sense of pleasure and satisfaction when you’re feeling something you don’t want to feel. Overeating has a numbing, softening effect on our unwanted sentiments, and takes our attention away from them. The key to ending this pattern is to not abandon yourself when your emotions go awry, but instead to invite them in and allow yourself to feel.
Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired — you name it. Welcome your negative emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings. Plus, through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want, and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction.
2. Maintain the pleasure principle.
Make pleasure a priority in your life! Flavor your water with fruit, wear soft, comfortable clothes, take bubble baths. Give your body other ways to experience feeling good, aside from eating. If you do find yourself in the middle of a binge, try allowing yourself to fully enjoy it. Sit down and savor every bite. The more focused you are on how good it feels to eat, the harder it will be to eat to the point of pain. Many times emotional eating is just our body’s attempt at experiencing pleasure.
3. Eat only when you’re actually hungry.
Emotional eaters tend to not eat when they’re actually hungry, which only makes them want to eat a lot more later. So instead, eat real, healthy, and nourishing foods whenever you experience physical hunger. Doing so will teach your body that you are not in what the weight-loss advocate Jon Gabriel calls, “starvation mode.” The Gabriel Method author says, “You become very efficient at storing fat and you lose the ability to burn it.” This means that eating when you’re hungry will not only make you less inclined to binge, but it will also tell your body that it’s safe to lose weight.
4. Prepare for your next binge by knowing your triggers.
Discover your triggers and strategize. If you know you eat when you’re lonely, plan to call a friend or write in your journal instead. Also, always carry food with you so that you never feel deprived. Emotional eating can be your body’s reaction to feeling deprived, so create new ways to nourish yourself. Stock your fridge with delicious, healthy foods, pack your calendar with exciting things to do, and be disciplined about setting aside time for yourself to relax.
5. Wake up to your own beauty.
If you knew how beautiful you were, you wouldn’t deny yourself food to try to change yourself. You also wouldn’t emotionally eat as a release, because there’d be no tension from which to release. Any shift in diet would be out of self-love and care for your beautiful body. We are a culture of gorgeous women expected to fit into an impossible mold for the sake of capital gain. Dr. Gail Dines says, “If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.” It’s time to wake up to your beauty and feed your body with the love and tenderness it truly deserves.