By Andria Corso on Nov 04, 2017

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]

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]

“Quit focusing on the next diet, and work on changing the way you think about food. Don’t make food the enemy or the reward. Don’t turn to it for comfort of peace. Lasting, healthy changes begin in your heart and mind. Change the way you think about food and you will succeed.” states Michelle Spadafora, Founder of Faithful Workouts.

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]

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]

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]

“We need to un-shame emotional eating and realize that as emotional beings we all eat based on how we feel. If we call it stress eating I think we can all agree we know that feeling. The point is to learn that our emotions are what makes us human and eating is both something that helps us feel nourished and a tool to help us feel better, not a way to avoid our humanness.” states Jeanette Bronee, a Integrative Nutrition & Meta-Medicine Health Coach and founder of Path for Life.

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]

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]

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