By Andria Corso on Feb 12, 2018

I grew up in an Italian family, which equated to food everywhere, all the time. And, lots of it!  We were a family of 4 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 this is 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. [1] [2]

“Emotional eating is caused by a combination of biology, genetics and environmental conditioning. Hence, those more prone to depression, anxiety, etc. and/or those who have brain wiring causing them to experience a particularly high level of pleasure from eating are biologically & genetically more vulnerable to developing emotional eating habits. If the individual also has observed others regularly eating for emotional reasons(environmentally), they are even more likely to develop habits of eating to soothe themselves.” Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and President of Eating Disorder Hope and Addition Hope.

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. [3] [4]

“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, Ph.D., C.E.D.S. Psychologist, Author, and Eating Disorder Treatment Specialist.

Uncomfortable Emotions

Negative emotions don’t feel good, 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 take the second class—or skip a day or two altogether? If it makes you feel anxious, stressed, depressed, 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.

Cant Stop Eating

The numbing with food is only a temporary solution. The negative emotions will return if we don’t deal with them. What often results if we don’t deal with them is a cycle of emotional eating. [5] [6]

“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 better understand emotional overeating 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 increases hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. [7]

“Shame is a large component of emotional eating, and many people suffering from this issue eat as an act of self-care in response due 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, anxiety, 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 disorder) 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.

As many of you know, adrenaline triggers our fight or flight response. When the adrenal glands kick in and adrenaline pumps through our bodies, we physically feel it. Our heart rate increases and blood pressure rises as blood is pumped more rapidly through our body. This also happens when you perform exercises in Shift Shop.

You can feel the lingering effects of an adrenaline rush (especially consistent adrenaline rushes) via tension in your neck and shoulders, amongst many other things. [8]

“Cardiovascular exercise works wonders on taking the edge off of anxiety. It’s generally believed that it takes at least 20 minutes of cardio to feel reduced anxiety. You can do anything that gets your heart rate up—jogging, cycling, the elliptical, etc. Working out boosts your brain’s levels of serotonin—the “feel good” chemical—and should definitely be a part of your treatment plan if you have anxiety, whether you also take medication or not.” states Chris Freytag, Founder of Get Healthy U.

I Cant Stop Eating

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.) [9]

Also, the stress response also 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. [10]

“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, M.A.,Owner and founder of the Mindful Eating Institute in Santa Barbara.

Common Emotional Eating Triggers and How to Manage Them Customer Testimonials

Comfort Eating

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?  [11]

Why Cant I Stop Eating

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. The food will never provide you with the pure comfort you desire. That can only come from within. [12]

“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, M.Ed., Author of As Thin As You Think.

Boredom Eating

Another big trigger for emotional eating is boredom. 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. [13]

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 habitual answer to deal with that feeling. [14]

“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, Ph.D.

making healthy choices

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. [15]

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.  [16]

Stress Eating

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.

You’re going to pay attention to how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally before, during, and after you eat. [17]

Why Can’t I Stop Eating Based on Emotion?

This is about recognizing when you’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion that is causing you to head for the pantry.  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. [18]

How to Stop Eating Because of Emotions

This can be the most difficult part. Who likes feeling angry, hurt, or sad?  No one. But this is what you’re trying to cover up with your emotional eating. 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 & labelling 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 fulfils 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. [19]

Emotional Eating

Emotions are energy in motion (e-motion). They need to be considered 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). Some take longer than others and some need to be “felt” many times over. You will be less likely to grab the box of milk duds from the pantry. [20]

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. [21]

Practice Mindful Eating

If you are starving, then eat! That’s the basic principle of mindful eating. And, 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. [22] [23]

MIndful Eating

How to Stop Emotional Eating

Some emotional eating triggers run deeper than you are aware. 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!


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About the Author:

Andria Corso is an award-winning Life and Leadership Coach and fitness expert with 20 years’ experience working with clients to create success in all areas of their life. full bio