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  • Writer's pictureSarah León

Emotional Eating - It's Not What You Think It Is

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Hold up. First, let me preface this with -


When It comes to emotional eating, it is important to understand that food is not the enemy. It is also important to understand that YOU are not the enemy. There is no enemy here, just a need to learn more about ourselves, our bodies, and how food effects us.

What is Emotional Eating?

It's not what you think it is...or maybe it is, but there's more to it. I hate calling it 'emotional eating' because it sounds like it only happens when you're feeling very emotional, which is not the case. I prefer 'emotion based eating', because we don't have to be feeling anything extreme to do it. Either way you say it, it is characterized by individuals making a habit of eating when they are not physically hungry, to help cope with various emotions. It is widely assumed that emotional eating occurs only due to negative emotions, when in reality it can occur when we are feeling a variety of emotions including those that are positive.*

Why do we do it?

Every single day, we are surrounded by a variety of different stimuli that can ignite a feeling of hunger in us, we call these 'hunger cues'. Sometimes these hunger cues tell us to eat because food is fuel and we need it - these are physiological cues. Other times these cues are triggered by psychological events, emotional state, or even physical environment - these are psychological or emotional cues, and they trick us into eating.

Physiological Cues: Our body tells us when we need to eat

A physical feeling of hunger or empty stomach, your belly growling, feeling lightheaded or weak, are all signs that your body needs food. Of course, you don't want to wait until you are lightheaded to eat, but it is important to be aware of these signs to learn what your body needs from you.

Psychological Reasons:

- Familiar routines - Having a few drinks after work. Having dessert after dinner.

- Symbolic associations with a certain food -

Mom always made apple pie so when I think of her I eat it - even if I'm not hungry.

- Desire for comfort - People may also eat for reasons such as boredom, guilt, anxiety, or stress.

Physical/Social Environment:

Social gatherings are a common reason that people overeat.

- Being surrounded by others enjoying food can make you want to eat simply because it feels good to be a part of the group.

-Or, on the other hand, you may be over-indulging out of a feeling of anxiety.

a. You are at a social gathering and everyone is drinking and you feel like you need to drink too. b. If you don't eat a slice of cake at the birthday party everyone will ask you if you're on a diet.

Our Senses:

Sight, smell, and taste, can trick us into thinking we need to eat -

We smell cookies baking and our mouth salivates and then we want cookies even though we are not hungry.

In conclusion, true hunger cues come from our physiological system and *fake* hunger cues come from our psychological and emotional state. Despite which type of environment the hunger cue comes from, usually there is some sort of emotion attached that is driving the urge to eat. Learning to differentiate between true hunger and emotional hunger is a vital part of fueling your body properly for a healthy, happy life.

What is the problem with emotional eating?

I am not saying that every time you get a craving for something it's horrible and you should ignore it. I'm not telling you to never have cake at parties. And I'm definitely not saying, never enjoy food for reasons other than hunger.

What I am saying, is that when we make eating when we are not hungry a habit - it impacts our health negatively. Our bodies tell us what they need, they give us various cues, and we function our best when we listen to these cues.

When emotional eating becomes a habit, your body is ignoring its physiological hunger cues and instead listening to its emotional and psychological queues. It isn't thinking about whether it needs food or not. This means that when we eat under these circumstances we tend to not feel satisfied, which leads to overeating.

It's also important to realize that emotional eating is not a successful coping method for negative feelings as it does not address the problem or the eating trigger. The happiness experienced while eating when not hungry is a temporary high. This high is often followed by numerous negative side effects such as discomfort, sickness, weight gain, anxiety, and/or food guilt. Sometimes the feelings associated with these negative side effects can lead to feelings of defeat and even more emotional eating.

You might be wondering if emotional eating when feeling happy is still "bad". The answer is yes - when it becomes a habit. This is because we are ignoring our bodies hunger cues and eating when our bodies don't really need it. Think about it; I only emotionally eat when I'm happy, when I'm with my friends, when I have the kids, or when it's date night...but when these events are happening every week with negative side effects they add up and can affect your overall quality of life.

True Hunger vs. Emotion Based Eating Examples:

Stacy's job is extremely stressful. When she gets home in the evenings she binges. She continues to eat and does not feel satisfied. She ends up feeling overly stuffed and guilty for eating so much. Stacy is an emotional eater.

Sarah loves food, especially sweet treats! Cozy movie night at home? Need to order dessert! Family dinner - dessert! Date night out - dessert! The kids want a treat - her too! However, she does not emotionally eat when she is stressed. Sarah is still an emotional eater.

Her eating is based off of happy feelings, psychological reasons, and familiar routines. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with eating treats. It becomes unhealthy when you can't say no - when you already feel full, know you're not hungry, but just want to partake or feel that sweet hit of dopamine.

Mary is training for a marathon. She has been running and exercising more than usual lately. She has been somewhat stressed at work and noticed she is eating more.

It is likely that Mary's body needs more food due to the extra physical effort she is putting in. Mary is not eating out of emotion.

How To Deal:

The first step to dealing with emotional eating is to try to understand your eating habits. You need to look for patterns and figure out your triggers. Do you find yourself binging after a long day at work? Does this usually happen when you are with specific people or only in social settings? Is your emotional eating triggered by boredom or loneliness?

1. Identify your triggers and become aware of what you're doing and how you feel.

Next time you find yourself binging or eating when you're not physically hungry - stop and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where are you?

  • Who are you with?

  • What was happening, what were you doing or thinking before you started eating.

  • How do you feel while you're eating?

  • How do you feel after?

Becoming aware of your eating patterns and feelings can help you prepare to deal with situations differently. Start thinking about how certain foods make your body feel and focus on consuming the ones that make you feel best.

2. Do Something Different.

Have a list of things that make you feel good that you can do instead of over-indulging.

  • Self Check In - Before you start eating, check-in with yourself. Are you really hungry? Will this food make you feel good and fuel your body? Sometimes thinking about it is enough to stop. But when it's, not try another option below….

  • Get Moving - Workout, take a walk, clean your house, play with your pet, organize your closet.

  • Get your brain busy - Read a book, journal, do a puzzle, work on something you enjoy.

  • Indulge healthily - Can't stop the cravings? Drink a tall glass of water. Have healthy snacks that make you feel good and will satisfy you.

3. Most importantly, practice mindful eating.

Putting a little thought into your actions never hurts! Think about what makes you feel good, think about your goals, think about consequences of eating foods that don't make you feel good. Repeatedly making these healthy decisions on purpose will lead to them becoming lifelong habits.

1* Bongers, Peggy, and Anita Jansen. “Emotional Eating Is Not What You Think It Is and Emotional Eating Scales Do Not Measure What You Think They Measure.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 7 1932. 8 Dec. 2016, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01932

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