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Emotional Eating and How to Stop It

Do you eat to feel better or relieve stress? These tips can help you stop emotional and stress eating, fight cravings, and find more satisfying ways to feed your feelings.

Fitness expert Bob Greene found that only about one in ten emotional eaters succeeds in changing his or her behavior for longer than five years. He says the problem is that those who eat (or deprive themselves) in response to external circumstances think they just need to be (or are being) more disciplined, better organized and so on. They may not realize that to break their self-destructive habit, they need to be aware of more than what they put in their mouths. They must also figure out why they're choosing to eat at those particular moments. Otherwise, every time they're faced with a stressful situation or feel unfulfilled, they'll find their resolve weakening and turn to their best friend: food.

What is emotional eating?

Before we can discuss ways to stop emotional eating let's talk about what emotional eating is. Emotional eating is the tendency of its sufferers to respond to stressful, difficult feelings by eating, even when not experiencing physical hunger. Emotional eating or emotional hunger is often a craving for high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods that have minimal nutritional value.

The foods that emotional eaters crave are often referred to as comfort foods, such as:

  • Ice cream

  • Cookies

  • Chocolate

  • Chips

  • French fries

  • Pizza

About 40% of people tend to eat more when stressed, while about 40% eat less, and 20% experience no change in the amount of food they eat when exposed to stress. Consequently, stress can be associated with both weight gain and weight loss.

According to, emotional eating can be a symptom of what mental health professionals call atypical depression, many people who do not have clinical depression or any other mental health issue engage in this behavior in response to momentary feelings or chronic stress. This behavior is highly common and is significant since it can interfere with maintaining a healthy diet and contribute to obesity. However, the behavior is hard for some of us to overcome due to the way our world events are structured around food it's challenging to overcome the triggers. For example, Rachel Eddins discusses in her article What is Emotional Eating: A Guide to Emotional Eating Triggers and Strategies for When It Gets Out of Control that most associations we have with food are emotional.

"Fun. Enjoyable (ie., pleasure). Family. Connection. Comfort. Sustenance. Health. Expensive. Relaxing. Stressful. Confusing. Satisfying. Stimulating. As you can see, most associations we have with food are actually emotional.

She explains that it's not until food becomes a primary response to emotional triggers, it becomes problematic. Not only does regular emotional eating lead to overeating and create health concerns, but it also leads to poor emotional coping strategies.

Good mental health includes using a variety of coping strategies and emotional regulation skills.

Although food can and does offer pleasure, that pleasure is not sustainable. In fact, getting stuck in the cycle of using food for pleasure can prevent you from creating sustainable sources of pleasure in your life."

It creates a cycle of unmet needs and can lead to getting stuck in a cycle of guilt and shame.

You are not alone in this experience, and your relationship with food does not define your character or worth. To improve your relationship with food—and, most importantly, your relationship with yourself—it’s important to learn more about what emotional eating is, what it isn’t, and which specific emotions or triggers might be driving you to overeat."

Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food.

Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed it's a problem. The question is do you have a problem let's find out below.

What Is the Difference Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger?

Understanding the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger is crucial for developing a healthy relationship with food and making mindful eating choices. Here are the key distinctions:

Emotional Hunger:

Sudden Onset: Emotional hunger tends to arise suddenly and can feel urgent or impulsive. It's not related to a gradual, physiological need for nourishment.

Specific Cravings: Emotional hunger often leads to cravings for specific comfort foods like sweets, chips, or other unhealthy snacks that provide temporary emotional relief.

Mindless Eating: During emotional eating episodes, you might eat absentmindedly, not paying attention to the quantity or quality of food consumed.

Seeking Comfort: Emotional hunger is driven by the desire to soothe or comfort negative emotions like stress, sadness, boredom, anxiety, or loneliness.

No Satisfying Fullness: Eating in response to emotional hunger rarely leads to a sense of satisfaction or fullness, even after consuming a large quantity of food.

Guilt or Shame: After emotional eating, individuals may feel guilty, ashamed, or regretful about their food choices.

Temporary Relief: Emotional eating temporarily masks or distracts from emotional discomfort but does not address the underlying emotional issues.

Physical Hunger:

Gradual Onset: Physical hunger develops gradually and is a result of the body's need for energy and nutrients.

Various Food Choices: When physically hungry, you are open to a variety of food options and can make balanced and rational food choices.

Awareness and Mindfulness: Physical hunger is associated with being in tune with your body's signals and being aware of when you're hungry and when you're full.

Satisfying Fullness: Eating in response to physical hunger leads to a sense of satisfaction and fullness once your body's nutritional needs are met.

No Guilt or Shame: Eating when physically hungry is a normal and necessary part of maintaining your health, so there's typically no guilt or shame associated with it.

Nourishment and Energy: Physical hunger is a biological signal that your body needs nourishment and energy to function optimally.

Tips to Address Emotional Eating:

Pause and Reflect: Before reaching for food, pause and assess if you're physically hungry or if emotions are driving your desire to eat.

Practice Mindfulness: Learn to be present in the moment and cultivate awareness of your emotions and the reasons behind your desire to eat.

Develop Healthy Coping Strategies: Explore alternative coping mechanisms like deep breathing, exercise, journaling, or talking to a friend to address emotional discomfort.

Seek Professional Support: If emotional eating is a persistent issue, consider consulting a mental health professional who can help you develop healthy strategies to manage emotions.

Building awareness and fostering a mindful approach to eating can significantly contribute to a healthier relationship with food and a better understanding of your body's hunger signals.

11 Ways to develop a healthy relationship with food and yourself

Improving your relationship with food and yourself involves understanding emotional eating, distinguishing it from other types of eating, identifying triggers, and developing healthier coping mechanisms. Here are steps to help you achieve a more positive relationship with food and yourself:

1. Educate Yourself on Emotional Eating:

  • Research and learn about emotional eating to understand its causes, effects, and how it manifests in your life.

  • Read reputable books, articles, or seek guidance from a mental health professional.

2. Keep a Food and Emotions Journal:

  • Track what you eat and how you feel before, during, and after each meal or snack.

  • Note emotional triggers, stressors, or events that may be influencing your eating habits.

3. Identify Emotional Triggers:

  • Recognize specific emotions (e.g., stress, boredom, sadness, anxiety) that trigger your overeating.

  • Pay attention to circumstances or events that precede emotional eating episodes.

4. Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms:

  • Explore healthier ways to cope with emotions, such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, journaling, or engaging in hobbies you enjoy.

  • Reach out to a mental health professional to develop effective coping strategies.

5. Practice Mindful Eating:

  • Focus on the sensory experience of eating, including taste, texture, and aroma.

  • Eat without distractions, such as TV or phone, to tune into your body's hunger and fullness cues.

6. Create a Supportive Environment:

  • Surround yourself with people who support your journey towards a healthier relationship with food and self-esteem.

  • Engage in supportive communities or forums that promote positive body image and healthy habits.

7. Seek Professional Help:

  • Consider working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to develop a balanced eating plan that meets your needs and goals.

  • Consult with a therapist or counselor to address emotional triggers and develop healthier coping strategies.

8. Practice Self-Compassion:

  • Be gentle with yourself and avoid self-criticism related to food choices or body image.

  • Cultivate a positive and compassionate inner dialogue.

9. Engage in Physical Activity:

  • Incorporate regular exercise into your routine to boost your mood, reduce stress, and improve your overall well-being.

  • Choose activities that you enjoy to make exercise a sustainable and enjoyable part of your life.

10. Practice Stress Reduction Techniques:

  • Incorporate stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, or progressive muscle relaxation to manage emotional triggers effectively.

  • Prioritize self-care and relaxation in your daily routine.

11. Set Realistic Goals:

  • Set achievable goals related to your relationship with food, emotional eating, and self-esteem.

  • Celebrate your progress and be patient with yourself throughout the journey.

Remember, developing a healthy relationship with food and yourself is a journey that takes time, effort, and self-compassion. Seek professional help when needed and surround yourself with a supportive network of individuals to assist you on this path of growth and positive change.



Need Help Developing A Plan For Self-Care

Do you want help developing a self-care plan that works for your busy schedule? Do you want accountability in implementing a self-care plan? If you or someone you love is struggling to maintain optimal mental and emotional health, consider reaching out to Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. We are a Metro Atlanta, Conyers Georgia area. We are a coaching and counseling practice with empathetic, skilled counselors and recovery coaches who can help you set goals, develop a self-care routine, and move forward to build a more fulfilling life. Our team would be happy to work with you either just for a couple of sessions to develop and implement a Self-care plan or longer term to work toward overall better mental health within our membership site or other programs.

Dr. Nikki LeToya White
Dr. Nikki LeToya White

About The Author:

Dr. Nikki LeToya White MSEd-TL, Ph.D. RHN is the founder, director, and full-time board-certified trauma-informed nutritionist, folk herbalist, and wellness consultant at Spiced Life Conversation Art Wellness Studio and Botanica. She created Spiced Life Conversation, LLC

Art Wellness Studio and Botanica to provide the Metro Atlanta area with counseling and coaching services where clients are carefully matched with the right program for healing abandonment and childhood emotional neglect trauma that cause codependency, emotional eating, financial stress, and imposter syndrome as it relates to fear of success and being abandon. We help you begin your emotional healing journey with ease. Recently, we have expanded to include an online membership site so we now provide support to people living all over the world. All of our recovery coaches provide at least one evidence-based treatment to assist in your recovery. Dr. White is a big proponent of self-care and helping people live a fulfilling life! She has been in full remission with both codependency and emotional binge eating disorder since 2016. In living a life in recovery from sugar addiction. Loving her low-sugar balance lifestyle.

Warm Regards

Dr. Nikki LeToya White


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