What Is Emotional Eating?
We eat a variety of foods throughout the day. But we don’t eat just to satisfy our physical hunger. We also eat to satisfy our emotional hunger, which is often caused by negative emotions and states of mind like boredom, loneliness, or anxiety.
Have you ever noticed that when you're feeling down, you want to grab something and eat, even when you've just had a filling meal? If your answer is “yes,” you may have experienced emotional hunger that leads to emotional eating.
Related: Emotional Eating Is Not the Solution
Emotional eating is a way many cope with negative emotions. Sometimes, we use food to comfort us during stressful situations. For example, you might reach for a chocolate bar after a stressful day at work or buy some ice cream when you are feeling down. These negative emotions make us seek energy-dense, unhealthy foods that lead to overeating. This makes it all the more important to find out what triggers your emotional eating and learn how to stop it.
Emotional Eating Causes
Boredom: Do you remember a time when you ate a bag of potato chips because there was nothing else to do? Having nothing to do or feeling bored is a common trigger for emotional eating. Eating when you’re bored keeps your mouth busy and fills up your time, distracting you from lack of meaning in the situation you’re currently in or the lack of purpose you might be feeling in your life, resulting in you eating to bring new purpose.
Stress: Eating because of stress is also called “stress eating.” It is caused in response to both psychological and physiological stress. Your body’s first response to stress is to suppress your appetite. But when stress is prolonged or when you’re feeling chronic stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which increases your appetite and makes you crave sugary or fatty, high-calorie foods. It’s, therefore, not surprising that some studies show a correlation between stress and obesity.
Loneliness: If you feel like there is no one who can understand your problems or help you, food might feel like a close friend that can help you feel better. But in reality, it’s not like that. When you’re upset, you’re more prone to making unhealthy food choices to avoid dealing with the real problem. Your guilt might kick in as a result because of the unnecessary calories you just consumed, making you feel more sad and guilty. This cycle of emotional eating doesn't end there. After feeling sad and guilty, you might again seek comfort from the foods that start the vicious cycle over.
Habits: Let’s think about your childhood. Close your eyes for a second and try to remember if your parents gave you candy for good behavior or tried to soothe you with ice cream when you were sad. Using food as a reward, punishment, or comfort can create an unhealthy relationship between your emotions and food, making you turn to food as a way to rid yourself of unpleasant emotions.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger can be powerful, making it hard to separate from physical hunger. But there are some important pointers that can help you to recognize whether your hunger is caused by emotions.
- One thing about emotional hunger is that it hits you suddenly with a sense of urgency, while physical hunger comes on gradually. When you are experiencing emotional hunger, it might feel like you need to satisfy your hunger immediately.
- Physical hunger comes with hunger symptoms, such as a growling belly or pangs in your stomach. On the other hand, emotional hunger does not originate from the stomach. Instead, you think about food and feel hunger as a craving.
- Emotional hunger might leave you craving specific foods which are mostly high-calorie and unhealthy. You don’t think about eating a wide range of foods, including vegetables. For example, if you think, “I need to eat cheesecake, not anything else,” you can take it as a sign of emotional hunger.
- Eating in response to physical hunger makes you feel satisfied and full after your meal. But it is harder to feel satisfied after eating out of emotional hunger. You may want to eat more and more to the point that you feel guilty or uncomfortable. For instance, when you are eating because of your emotions, you might eat an entire container of ice cream in one sitting without even realizing you ate the whole container.
- Most of the time, emotional eating causes feelings of regret, shame, or powerlessness after eating because of the feeling of guilt that it stirs for giving into your cravings. Physical eating, on the other hand, ends with feelings of satisfaction.
How To Stop Emotional Eating?
Managing emotional eating won't happen overnight! Changing your relationship with food can be difficult, but don't worry! There are some tips for helping you overcome emotional eating.
Since emotional eating is often used to deal with negative emotions, you can try to find healthier coping mechanisms. For example, try yoga or meditation to reduce your stress levels if you are stressed out. If boredom triggers your emotional hunger, keep yourself busy by reading a book, talking with a friend, or dancing around until you feel the urge to eat pass. If you adopt these tips in your life, you will not only avoid emotional eating, but you will also feel a lot better and relaxed.
When your body is physically strong, relaxed, and rested, you can better cope with the distressing situations that life throws your way. Therefore, it is important to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Exercising daily can help release feel-good hormones and make you feel happier. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night can prevent the feeling of tiredness that can be mistaken for hunger. Eating a well-balanced diet can provide you with enough nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to prevent low mood.