Do you eat even when you are not hungry at all or even stuffed? Yes No
Do you promise yourself a treat if you finish a hard or boring task? Yes No
Does food feel like a friend? Yes No
Do you often feel out of control when around food? Yes No
Do you eat more when you are stressed? Yes No
Do you eat to feel better (when depressed, angry, bored, or stressed)? Yes No
Does your mood influence how much you eat? Yes No
If you answered “Yes” to three or more of the questions above, you might be engaging in emotional eating.
People who are emotional eaters use food to make themselves feel better. In other words, they eat to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill their stomachs. This doesn’t mean that anyone who occasionally has a piece of chocolate as a pick-me-up is an emotional eater. However, if eating is the major emotional coping mechanism, then people can get stuck in an unhealthy cycle that is difficult to emerge from. This cycle begins when the first impulse when tired, bored, or stressed is to open a bag of chips. The issue is that the food only temporarily satisfies the emotional hunger. After eating, the person usually feels shame and guilt and has not gotten to the root of the emotion to begin with. This can lead to weight gain and low self-esteem.
First, let’s discuss some of the reasons behind emotional eating.
- Stress and anxiety. Today, many people experience stress related to their families, jobs, and heavily scheduled lives. This stress can create anxiety, and many “feed” their anxiety by sitting down to a pint of ice cream.
- Boredom. When people feel unfulfilled or discontented, they might turn to food to suppress those feelings.
- Fatigue. When people are tired, their body produces a hormone, ghrelin, which tells them they are hungry. It also suppresses the hormone leptin, which signals to the brain that you are full. Therefore, when you are tired, you feel hungry even if you have just eaten and are physically full.
- Depression. If people are sad, they will often not be interested in getting out of the house or interacting with people. This can sometimes lead to emotional eating, as the food can temporarily numb the pain. However, after eating, the depressed person is still stuck in the same situation.
Again, I would like to emphasize that occasionally rewarding yourself with a treat or celebration of food is not emotional eating. Rather, emotional eating is a cycle that is not occasional at all.
Let me explain.
Emotional hunger is sudden. When you are physically hungry, your body slowly lets you know that you need food. However, emotional hunger hits you all of a sudden. It is urgent and requires instant gratification.
Emotional hunger leads to mechanical eating. If you are eating to satisfy a need that is not physical, you won’t necessarily stop eating when full. Instead, you will mindlessly eat a whole bag of potato chips or a whole pint of ice cream without even realizing it.
Emotional hunger demands salty, sugary, or fatty foods. When you are physically hungry, you will happily eat a bowl of lentil soup or a slice of broccoli quiche. But, when you are emotionally hungry, your brain craves snacks and junk because you need the emotional jolt.
Emotional hunger doesn’t stop when you’re full. Regardless of how full your stomach is, emotional hunger demands more. You keep eating until you are awkwardly stuffed.
Emotional hunger is not located in the stomach. When you are physically hungry, your stomach growls or you feel an emptiness in your belly. With emotional hunger, the hunger is in your head. You simply can’t stop thinking about that treat.
Emotional hunger is accompanied by regret, guilt, or shame. If you are satisfying an emotional need with a junky snack, you most likely feel bad about eating after you are done. This makes the feelings that propelled you to emotional eating all the stronger, possibly beginning the cycle again.
How can you cope with emotional eating?
Get support. More people than you think struggle with emotional eating. Finding other people who are dealing with the same things you are dealing with can help you both get to the root of the emotion, and find coping strategies to aid you in overcoming emotional eating itself. Join a support group for people wrestling with the issue.
Exercise. Exercise can help you cope with emotional eating in so many ways. First, when you exercise your body produces “feel-good” hormones that fight depression and anxiety. Second, the time that you take to exercise helps you stay away from both the negative emotion that you are feeling and the boredom that you might be experiencing. Lastly, exercise helps you move past the shame and guilt of emotional eating because you are, in essence, breaking the cycle.
Snack healthy. If you prepare snacks in advance, when your hunger strikes (whether emotional or physical), you will be ready with a healthy snack at hand. For instance, prepare a few carrots and chumus or a handful of nuts and raisins in a Ziploc bag. If you have the healthy snacks at hand, you’ll be more likely to reach for those than the bag of potato chips.
Take away temptation. If you see that you can’t stop emotionally eating, then make it more difficult for you to eat that ice cream and potato chips – don’t buy them! If they are not in your house when sudden emotional hunger hits, you won’t be able to eat them.
Beyond emotional eating, it’s important to get to the root of the emotion that is creating the problem. Anxiety and depression affect millions of Americans every year – and treating those is the first step towards solving emotional eating and living a happier, fuller life.