I grew up in an Italian family, which equated to food everywhere, all the time – and, lots of it! We were a family of four, and my mom always cooked as if there were 12 of us at the dinner table.
Why? Leftovers or emotional eating?
We live in a society where large portion sizes are common. Whether you grew up in a family like mine or not, there is typically an abundance of food in our culture – and, there is also an abundance of issues with it.
We don’t just eat because we are hungry. We also practice emotional eating. Experts agree that emotional eating is one of the leading reasons it’s so difficult to lose weight, Psychology Today reports.
We’ve heard the term, but what exactly is emotional eating? I describe it as eating for reasons other than hunger. Yes, that’s general and simplistic but for this article, let’s keep it that way. Do you try to lose weight and continue to eat for purposes other than physical hunger?
Chances are you’re eating for “emotional” reasons, and you’ll have trouble losing weight. So, what triggers emotional eating? It varies by individual, but here are common triggers experienced by emotional eaters (see Psychology Today articles Emotional Eating? 5 Reasons You Can’t Stop, Escape The Emotional Eating Cycle, The Cycle of Emotional Eating).
“We all know that disordered eating has to do with one’s world being out of balance—food and weight are used to cope with feelings, to withdraw, to protect one’s self,” states Dr. Judith Brisman, PhD, CEDS Psychologist, Author, and Eating Disorder Treatment Specialist.
If you’re trying to lose weight, but emotional eating has its claws in you, try tracking your food intake using the extensive database of foods from Noom.
Negative emotions don’t feel right, so we tend to ignore them, push them aside, or try to avoid them. Using food to numb uncomfortable feelings is one of many ways people avoid them.
“Changing personal appearance in healthy ways can enhance self-esteem,” states Dr. Fran Walfish, a Child, Couple and Family Psychotherapist.
When we feel anger, hurt, resentment, or sadness arise, we reach for the bag of potato chips or the pint of ice cream instead of allowing our emotion to be felt.
“Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel if I don’t work out—or skip a day or two altogether? If it makes you feel stressed, guilty or bad about yourself, if you have to work out twice as hard the next day to make up for it, or if you can’t back off when you’re tired, sick or injured, it’s a sign of a problem,” states Jodi Rubin, ACSW, LCSW, Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Founder of Destructively Fit.
Numbing with food is only a temporary solution. The negative emotions will return if we don’t deal with them. What often results is a cycle of emotional eating (see studies in the journals of Eating Disorders and Appetite).
“One of the most important first steps to working with emotional overeating is making sure you are fed well and consistently and satisfyingly throughout the day. When we get too hungry, we might eat in a chaotic way that can feel out of control and very emotional.
If we are ever to understand emotional overeating better and work toward responding to it more precisely, we need to separate it from this kind of primal physical hunger. Once that is stabilized, we can begin to sense what is happening in the body when we have the urge to eat in the absence of physical hunger,” states Nutritional Therapist Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RDN, CDN.
Stress Causes Emotional Eating
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my clients say they’re under a lot of pressure at work and because of that they are eating poorly. Stress is another big trigger of emotional eating. Our body’s response to stress or a threat of stress increases the hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – according to Minerva Endocrinology.
“Shame is a large component of emotional eating, and many people suffering from this issue eat as an act of self-care in response to internalized pressures and triggers — most of which are completely out of their control. Emotional eating is, for the most part, a response to shame, and fear and paired with the fact that most people suffering from emotional eating also do not trust their ability to care for themselves, it can make things more complicated. Emotional eating can be a lingering issue from previously treated disordered eating (or even a form of an undiagnosed eating conditions) and therefore at the very least requires the practice of mindfulness; tuning into your feelings at that moment and paying close attention to your physiological responses,” states Erin Campbell NASM-FNS, Certified Nutritional Therapist and Life Coach.
Healthy habits are the key to being in control of your food intake – and your life, for that matter. Noom helps users adopt and maintain healthy lifestyle changes, like eating when you need to eat and not when you’re feeling emotional.
One way we manage these feelings of stress is to eat – and, chances are we’re not reaching for the raw veggies. Why not? First, we don’t often associate fresh vegetables with foods that make us “feel better” (although physically they may, emotionally they do not), MedlinePlus says.
“Stress is a consistent trigger in everything from failing to stay on diets to addiction relapses. Whatever the object of our desire, feeling stress makes us think we need it like we need air to breathe. Unfortunately, the research on stress leads to an uncomfortable conclusion — not only does stress predispose us to wanting pleasure, it makes our desire for it drastically out of proportion to our enjoyment. The reward never reaches the level of our want,” states David DiSalvo, Science Writer and author of “What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.”
Also, the stress response increases the level of cortisol in our bodies, and excess cortisol creates cravings for sweet and salty food. So, we again reach for the bag of potato chips or nachos, or something sweet to ease those cravings and ease our tension. According to the Journal of Eating Disorders, things like mindful eating and emotional regulation can help with stress eating.
“Emotional overeaters need to learn to separate hunger from other needs. Ask yourself: “What am I really in need of right now? How am I feeling? What challenges do I face? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I sad? Am I bored? Am I feeling unappreciated?” states Petra Beumer, MA, Owner, and founder of the Mindful Eating Institute in Santa Barbara.
Maybe you grew up in a family where food was a soother. Did your mom offer you a hot fudge sundae or a trip to the ice cream shop if you had a bad day at school?
Did your friends come over with a gallon of ice cream when your high school boyfriend broke up with you?
Food is something that can be of comfort to us. Who doesn’t love a bowl of hot soup or a mug of frothy hot chocolate on a cold winter day? However, when we continually look to food to provide us with comfort when we are suffering or going through a difficult time, we can get caught in the cycle of unhealthy emotional eating (see research in RIDGE Project Summaries, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, and Frontiers in Psychology). The food will never provide you with the pure comfort you desire. That can only come from within.
“Visualization is a technique of mentally rehearsing in advance new behaviors and reactions to emotional triggers. In this way, you can power up your ability to respond to emotions without reaching for food. Starting today, visualize and imagine making healthy behavior choices for the next time your trigger emotions flare.
For instance, mentally see yourself taking some deep breaths and heading out the door for a walk or to the gym when you feel stressed — or enjoying a hobby or the company of a pet or friend when you’re feeling bored or lonely. To make this even more effective, include feelings of pride, happiness, and success with your mental rehearsal. In this way, when your trigger emotions flare, your mind is already programmed to react in healthy non-eating ways. What you visualize is what you become. Taking control of the images in your mind will allow you to take control of your habits,” states Kristin Volk Funk, MEd, Author of As Thin As You Think.
Losing weight is about more than eating less. There’s an aspect of self control that can be difficult to adopt. Tracking your lifestyle changes and your new eating and workout habits with Noom makes achieving your goals a bit easier.
Another big trigger for emotional eating is boredom, according to research in the Journal of Health Psychology. Having open time or feeling unmotivated often gives us a reason to reach for food to fill the gap.
This can be a habit too. If you’re home with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, you might decide to binge-watch your favorite show AND grab a bag of chips to join you.
Before you know it, your three shows in and the bag is gone, not because you were hungry but because you were bored and not paying attention to what you were consuming. You were feeling empty from the boredom, and food was the constant answer to deal with that feeling.
“We all know that supportive friends can really help people to stay motivated in achieving their goals. Top reasons you might want to help your friends are that you understand their struggles, have empathy for their experience, and care about them.
When they struggle or slip off the path (as they will surely do), you would hopefully offer compassion and encourage them to try again. Now just imagine how helpful it would be if you took that same approach with yourself. After all, you can have no greater or more influential friend than the one you find inside,” states Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD.
All these triggers are emotional. You are using food to numb, avoid, or cover up something you don’t want to feel – hence, the triggers prompt emotional eating. And, these triggers are very common.
Unfortunately, they not only make it hard to lose weight but also create feelings of shame, guilt, and self-hatred. Emotional eating causes us to beat ourselves up and be excessively self-critical. This can then lead to more emotional eating.
It becomes an unhealthy cycle. But, there are ways to deal with the triggers and stop the cycle (see the study in Frontiers in Psychology).
Managing Emotional Eating Triggers
I will share a process to help you manage any of these triggers that might cause you to eat emotionally. The biggest thing to mention first is that emotional eating is usually mindless eating.
You aren’t paying attention to the physical cues from your body so you eat for reasons other than physical hunger and can also eat to excess.
Therefore, the first thing to do is set an intention (daily if necessary) that you are going to be mindful about your eating for the day; meaning, you are going to pay attention to your body, to when it’s hungry, and when it’s not.
Why Can’t I Stop Eating Based on Emotion?
CommonHealth says that this is about recognizing when you’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion that is causing you to head for the pantry. According to CDR, poor emotion regulation skills may cause emotional eating.
Did you just have an argument with a loved one and are feeling angry or hurt?
State it – either aloud or to yourself: I’m feeling hurt. I’m feeling angry. When you name and claim your emotion, you honor it, and, it begins to lose its power over you
How to Stop Eating Because of Emotions
This can be the most challenging part. Who likes feeling angry, hurt, or sad? No one. But this is what you’re trying to cover up with your emotional eating (see this study in Appetite). There’s the discomfort of being bored, hurt, or stressed.
“The more restrictive we are with food, the more we crave it. Willpower is a limited resource & eventually we all give in. If you’re being over-restrictive & labeling food as “good” or “bad,” this results in feelings of failure & self-loathing when food doesn’t go according to plan, triggering a spiral of “restrict – binge – self loathe – restrict – binge – self loathe” & so on. It’s much more effective to set realistic goals around food & enjoy it for what it is. Food fulfills many roles – fuel, comfort, social connectedness. It nourishes the mind & the soul.
Further, the number on the scales or the tag in your jeans doesn’t determine your worth as a person. Health and people come in all shapes and sizes, don’t rate your self worth on your relationship to gravity (i.e., the scales). Appreciate your body for all the wondrous things that it is capable of. Nourish it and care for it regardless of its shape or size. It’s much easier to nurture a body you respect & appreciate than a body you hate,” states Joanna Baker, APD, Founder of Everyday Nutrition.
Pay attention to how you feel and WHY you want to eat, (physical hunger vs. something else); you’ll recognize the emotion that you DON’T want to feel and then, feel it.
Emotions are energy in motion (e-motion). They need to be addressed so they can move through your body. When you allow them to be felt, they run through your body and don’t get stuck there.
If you let the emotion be felt by simply sitting with it until the feeling passes (and trust me, it will pass) – you will feel empowered.
Some take longer than others, and some need to be “felt” many times over. If you feel your feelings, you will be less likely to grab the box of milk duds from the pantry.
One important part of fighting emotional eating is to clean out your pantry and give away all the foods that are calorie-heavy, but offer no nutritional value. A food database like the one with Noom makes sorting through thousands of foods easier.
How to Control Emotions While Eating
Everything we do in life is a choice – your health, your nutrition, your LIFE – each moment is a choice. As you recognize and claim your uncomfortable emotion or situation, you get to choose how you’re going to deal with it. You can continue to numb it with food, or you can do something else. The choice is always yours to make.
Practice Mindful Eating
If you are starving, then eat! That’s the basic principle of mindful eating (see the Journal of Obesity, Appetite, and US Department of Veterans Affairs article). Pay attention while you’re eating to the cues from your body. It’ll let you know when you’ve had enough. And then you reach another choice point – you can stop eating when your body is finished, or you can continue.
It’s always up to you. Also, note how you’re feeling when you’re done eating. This is another indicator as to whether you listened to physical cues from your body regarding what to eat and how much to eat.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Some emotional eating triggers run deeper than you are aware of. Sure, you can take the tips in this article and begin to make significant strides, but if you continue to struggle, do yourself a favor and get support from a professional.
Emotional eating is not only one of the leading reasons it’s so difficult to lose weight but is also a significant cause for shame and self-loathing. We are our own worst critics and don’t need another item on the “self-criticize” list. Remember, you deserve to have a healthy relationship with food and live a healthy, thriving life. Don’t let emotional eating get in your way!
Common Emotional Eating Triggers and How to Manage Them Questions & Answers
The emotional eating cycle is when people turn to food for comfort in response to stress, sadness or other negative feelings. This type of eating can lead to guilt and shame after the fact, which then leads people back to turning to food again. It forms a vicious cycle where people try to use food as a temporary solution to their emotions but find it only sets them up with more problems in the long run.