Emotional eating is a problem when food is regularly used to suppress or soothe negative feelings like stress, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, fear, and anger. The root of emotional eating often stems from deeper issues such as major life events, depression, work, and financial stressors, relationship conflicts, and chronic health issues. Almost 40% of adults reported overeating or consuming junk food in response to stress.
Now, let me start by saying that everyone eats for reasons outside of pure hunger, which, on occasion, is completely normal and acceptable behavior. However, when eating becomes your primary way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, this can result in a roller-coaster ride of addictive behaviors. And what’s worse, you’re left with your original emotion plus the added feelings of guilt, regret, and shame—a very vicious cycle.
I’ve outlined some ways to identify and manage emotional eating so you can stay on track and feel your best!
Note from Collin:
My relationship with food wasn’t always the healthiest. Through most of my 20s, I struggled with bulimia. It makes me sad to think of myself during those years. I was an addict – cake, doughnuts, ice cream, binges, purges, numb – that was me. It was a vicious cycle. I did end up going to rehab and learning other ways to cope with the stresses of life. To be honest and open, I struggled after rehab, but thankfully due to the support of loved ones and learning to be kind to myself, I slowly broke free from my addiction. – Read more here.
If you feel your emotional eating is becoming too much to control, you may need to seek professional guidance to help in understanding and managing the root cause driving these behaviors.
What’s the difference between physical and emotional hunger?
• Comes on gradually
• You desire a variety of foods
• You’re able to sense feelings of fullness and satisfaction
• You’re more mindful and aware when eating
• Doesn’t leave you with negative emotions after eating
• Comes on suddenly
• Creates strong cravings for comfort foods (often sugary sweets and starchy foods)
• Leaves a lack of satisfaction even when physically full
• Leads to mindless eating (i.e. eating a full bag of chips or box of cookies while watching a show)
• Leaves you with negative feelings like regret, guilt, and shame
Tips to combat emotional eating
1. Practice mindful eating.
Mindful eating is a practice to help you develop awareness of your eating habits and identify triggers that may lead to emotional eating. Mindfulness means being in the present moment, with acceptance, but without judgment. By practicing mindful eating, one can better differentiate between physical and emotional hunger, allowing for heightened awareness to search for other ways to cope with your emotions.
Here are tips to practice mindful eating:
- Avoid eating with distractions. Turn off the television, put the phone down, and don’t eat in the car.
- Eat at the kitchen table. Avoid eating on the couch or while in bed.
- Don’t rush your meal. Slowing down will allow the signals to get to your brain before you overeat.
- Pump the breaks. Try to stop eating before you are full. Though you may have been told this, you don’t have to clean your plate.
- Take smaller bites. Pay attention to how the food tastes and feels in your mouth.
- Wait a few minutes. If you feel a sudden urge to eat, take a deep breath, drink a tall glass of water, and set a timer for 10 minutes. This will give you time to assess your emotions and make an alternative plan.
- Give those appetite signals some time. After you’re finished eating, allow 15-20 minutes to determine if you’re still truly hungry before opting for seconds or adding a dessert.
2. Identify your triggers.
Think about the times when you emotionally eat. How were you feeling? What happened just before you began eating? Does it coincide to a specific time of day? Consider starting a journal or taking notes of when you eat outside of a healthy meal/snack or overindulge on unhealthy foods. By identifying your personal triggers, you can then come up with alternative strategies to cope.
Some healthy strategies include:
- Have a support buddy you can call to talk through your emotions.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal before diving into food.
- Practice deep breathing exercises to de-stress and clear the mind.
- Take up guided meditation, as it’s been studied to be an effective tool to help with emotional eating. My favorite apps are Headspace and Calm.
- Move your body with exercise, yoga, or go for a simple walk.
- Reading a book may help to get your mind off the emotion. Consider reading something inspiring and motivating.
3. Toss the temptation.
Make your trigger foods inconvenient. Don’t think that stashing them in a secret cupboard (or hiding them in the garage) will do… get rid of them entirely. The less convenient they are to get, the more time you can work through the emotion.
4. Don’t punish yourself.
This is important. Often, when a person overindulges with emotional eating, they’re left with the added feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. This can sometimes lead to food restriction to try and rectify the behavior with starvation, turning into a terrible cycle of restricting and overeating. If you overeat, do NOT punish yourself with starvation. Resume regular meals and eat if you are physically hungry, regardless if you over-ate a few hours earlier, or even the day before.
5. Consider time-restricted eating.
Time-restricted eating is when you limit your eating within a particular window of time each day. For example, consuming all of your meals between the hours of 10 am to 6 pm, which provides an 8-hour eating window, followed by 16 hours of fasting. If this is overwhelming, try a 10-hour eating window (8am-6pm) with a 14-hour fast. Planning your meal schedule ahead can help to eliminate sporadic eating and late-night munching. Consider apps like Zero, which can help you to keep track of the eating and fasting window.
6. Pay attention to sleep.
Poor sleep can affect certain appetite hormones (ghrelin and leptin) that result in increased hunger and cravings throughout the day (making it very difficult to combat and cope with emotional eating). Practice good sleeping habits like going to bed early, keeping the temperature cool, and turning off the screens, and consider some soothing sounds or white noise to drown out distractions.
How does the keto diet factor into this?
Unlike other traditional diets that often leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied, a healthy ketogenic diet will do just the opposite! Keto has shown to help to suppress hunger and appetite, which, in turn, can help to reduce those intense cravings that trigger emotional eating.
Also, carbohydrate-rich diets have a larger effect on our appetite hormones (insulin, leptin, ghrelin), resulting in a roller-coaster ride of spikes and dips in blood sugar. These fluctuations can lead to significant shifts in hunger, even shortly after eating. Keto helps to normalize these hormones leveling out the track, and, in turn, our appetite.
In fact, people who follow a keto diet often report feeling a greater sense of control over their hunger and more in-tune with their true appetite. Even better, some studies suggest that a keto diet may have an anti-depressant effect and may be considered as a potential intervention for certain mood disorders.
Everyone eats for reasons outside of hunger on occasion, but when food is used to cope with uncomfortable feelings, this can lead to unhealthy behaviors. Look for healthy alternative ways to cope with emotions – but if you feel you cannot gain control of your emotional eating on your own, please reach out to your doctor for help.
Tara Finnerty RDN, CSP, CD — is a ketogenic specialist and fat-fueled enthusiast. Tara is a registered dietitian in Utah and owner of Sugar House Nutrition LLC. Her aim is to provide nutrition support for people wanting to reap the many health benefits of the ketogenic (keto) diet. Her expertise in the keto diet was initially working with children who have uncontrolled epilepsy. Tara supports nutrition diversity and works toward helping people find an individualized approach to make healthy eating sustainable.