Emotional eating and how to overcome it

“I am so stressed out, I need celery and carrots to make me feel better”

Sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Not the fact that we go for food when we are stressed out but the actual choice of it.  

It’s no surprise that we go for particular foods when we feel sad, anxious, angry, or hurt.

The fact that we all eat emotionally is a common fact these days. And the food that we choose for solace and comfort is not vegetables and protein, it is what they call ‘comfort food’ which is generally accepted as carb-ie or fatty or sweet, or all three, the type of food that we would not want to eat every day for the generally accepted consequences of weight gain and digestive issues.  

We all have our go-to food when we feel bad;  whether it is ice cream or cake, creamy pasta or chips,  doughnuts or cookies, we know what to go for and where to find it. 

It is usually a decision that is made in a matter of seconds and even if the rational mind is timidly saying “No, you promised yourself that you would not eat this again” its voice is quickly displaced by another voice saying “You need this and you need this now” 

It is hard to fight that voice as it is backed by strong emotion that fuels it and makes it impossible to ignore since emotions are so much more powerful than logic.  As humans, we are driven by emotion and tend to make a lot of choices at that level.   We make purchases on emotion,  react to life circumstances on emotion, have conversations with others on emotion, and eat on emotion. 

Emotional eating is very often unconscious, meaning that there is not much awareness when it happens but even if there were, even if you heard yourself saying “I am stress eating again”, the awareness alone does not give you enough motivation to stop.  

And yet, this is the first step to overcome it.  

So, what are the signs that you eat emotionally other than out of a genuine need to nourish your body?  

Let me ask you something: 

  • Do you find yourself craving sugary, fatty, or carb-ie foods after a perceived negative event: a break-up, an argument at work, being ghosted or gaslighted, or anything else? 
  • Do you ever find yourself eating massive quantities of food mindlessly without much awareness of how much you have eaten? 
  • Do you ever eat after coming home from a social event even if food was served there and you are not hungry?  
  • Do you eat when you are bored or sad or lonely regardless of hunger? 
  • Do you eat to celebrate after receiving good news?  
  • Do you eat at social events when not hungry and keep eating even after being full? 

If you answered ‘yes’ to even one question, you have done it.  And you are not alone. 

In reality, you would not find a single person on the planet who has not at least once in their life eaten emotionally for the simple fact that all people on the planet have emotions and food is the quickest and most available (at least in affluent countries) way to alter an unpleasant emotion even if only for a short time. 

So, why do we crave unhealthy food when we feel bad?  

Science shows that certain foods cause our brains to release a chemical called dopamine.   Dopamine is a feel-good chemical, it induces pleasure and is a natural reward system in the body. 

When we feel stressed out, sad, hurt, anxious, lonely, or even tired, the feelings we want to avoid, we turn to specific foods to help boost our mood and energy. 

But does it work?  

It certainly does, otherwise, we would not do it.  People do find temporary relief from whatever uncomfortable emotions they are feeling at that moment. 

The problem is that the relief is short lasting, it usually only lasts for as long as we eat, with the feelings of guilt and shame inevitably following. 

Another cause of out-of-control emotional eating is our upbringing, the habits we were brought up with, and the conditioning we received in childhood. 

Do any of those sound familiar? 

  • Whenever you got upset about something as a child,  a loved one would offer you a sweet treat. 
  • As a small child and you fell and skinned your knees and your mom said “Don’t cry, let’s go get some ice cream”
  • Your parents would compensate for not spending time with you during the week by taking you out for ice cream on the weekend. 
  • You got a lollipop every time you visited a dentist or a doctor.  
  • There were plenty of sweet treats and other yummies during holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations but not during regular times.

Parents don’t realize that by doing that, they create a strong association of yummy sweet food with love, connection, celebration, and happy times. 

When we feel less than happy, we turn to those foods to re-live those happy and carefree times. 

Needless to say that solving emotional problems with food does not work, not long-term anyway.  But those associations may stay with us for the rest of our lives. 

Research shows that there is an interesting correlation between the foods we crave and the emotions we are feeling at that moment. 

  • Crunchy and hard foods like pretzels, chips, and nuts are the typical go-tos for people who feel stressed and angry.  There is anecdotal evidence that crunching down on hard foods may alleviate stress and calm one down. 
  • People feeling sad, lonely, and depressed might go to creamy and sweet foods as a way to get comfort and solace. 

Creamy and sweet foods are very reminiscent of mother’s breast milk when it was the source of comfort and love and we might be drawn to these types of food subconsciously to recreate that feeling of being loved and cared for. 

  • People, feeling ungrounded and pulled in different directions reported going for fatty and heavy foods since it seems to ground them and make them feel more stable. 

In any way, if not for unwanted and at times painful side effects of emotional eating, coupled with not having an opportunity to learn how to deal with uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way, it would be a good way to cope with life’s ups and downs but unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. 

Some of the unpleasant side effects of chronic emotional eating include:

  • Weight gain
  • Blood sugar problems
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Digestive issues
  • Social anxiety, etc 

Another form of emotional eating is called a ‘conditioned response’.  

A conditioned response is an action you do in association with another action or stimulus that with time becomes conditioned and habitual. 

An example would be 

  • When you find yourself always purchasing popcorn and a drink at the movie theater even if you are not hungry. 
  • Or eat when they serve food on the airplane even if it is 5 a.m. and you never eat that early. 
  • Or eat at the same time every day out of habit even if not hungry? 

Although not fitting completely into an emotional eating mold, the conditioned response will always give you something; a reward; whether it is a sense of belonging, comfort, celebration, or a sense of routine and stability. 

It is useful to look at what the behavior is giving you and if possible substitute it with something healthier.  

So, how do you overcome emotional eating? 

Considering that emotional eating is triggered by emotions, working on emotions would be a good way to start.  Here is my 3-step process to help you identify and get through a trigger emotion.  

You might get a clear answer like “ I feel sad, angry, disappointed, anxious, hurt, excited”  or you might just get a feeling in the body without clear emotion coming through. Either way is helpful. 

1. When you find yourself going for any kind of comfort food, take a pause and ask yourself  “What am I feeling at this moment?”  

It is important to have an attitude of compassion and curiosity, other than judgment or blame, sincerely trying to understand what is alive in you at that moment. 

2. Next step is to ask yourself “What do I need?”  This question is important because behind any unpleasant feeling is an unmet need and getting in touch with your needs is crucial for the health of the whole system.    The answers could be: I need to rest, feel safe, feel comforted, more focused, feel accepted, or any other.  

3. The next question to ask yourself is “ What can I do other than eat to meet that need?

 Make a list of anything that comes to mind, no matter how simple it is. Examples are: getting outside to get some fresh air, taking a short rest, having a glass of water, calling a friend, taking a few deep breaths, making a plan of any kind, or maybe just talking to yourself in a kind and loving manner.  

it is important to try your ideas out, one at a time.  If one doesn’t work, try another.  

These steps are easy and with practice, should not take more than 5 minutes of your time.  

I recommend starting slowly and doing one step at a time. 

You can set an intention for the first week or two to just create awareness, without changing anything else, practicing tuning into yourself and becoming aware of your feelings and needs.  

Don’t get discouraged if you can’t seem to do it from day one.  Very often with old habits, it takes time to create awareness and often awareness comes after the fact, but you can still work with it in retrospect, bringing up that moment again, re-living it, and going through the steps after the event is over.   

After getting used to doing the first step, you can add the second, and after that the third.  

The idea is not to rush it,  but slowly create a more trusting and compassionate relationship with yourself. 

It would be very helpful to create a food diary, logging in on how you feel, your needs, and what you eat.  With time you will be able to see patterns and learn more about yourself and your needs. 

This approach is very helpful, not just in overcoming cravings and overeating but also in getting to know yourself better and thus reconnecting with yourself. 

Knowing what your conditioned responses are, what emotional states you are in when you indulge in cravings, what your needs are, and being committed to meeting them will surely bring the desired relief.