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Emotional Eating

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with feelings instead of to satisfy hunger. We've all been there, finishing a whole bag of chips out of boredom or downing cookie after cookie while cramming for a big test. But when done a lot — especially without realizing it — emotional eating can affect weight, health, and overall well-being.

Not many of us make the connection between eating and our feelings. But understanding what drives emotional eating can help people take steps to change it.

People often turn to food when they're stressed out, lonely, sad, anxious, or bored. Little daily stresses can cause someone to seek comfort or distraction in food. But emotional eating can be linked to positive feelings too, like the romance of sharing dessert on Valentine's Day or the celebration of a holiday feast.

People learn emotional eating patterns: A child who gets candy after a big achievement may grow up using candy as a reward for a job well done. A kid who is given cookies as a way to stop crying may learn to link cookies with comfort. 

It's not easy to "unlearn" patterns of emotional eating. But it is possible. And it starts with an awareness of what's going on.

Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger

We're all emotional eaters to some extent (who hasn't suddenly found room for dessert after a filling dinner?). But for some people, emotional eating can be a real problem, causing weight gain or cycles of binge eating.

The trouble with emotional eating is that after the pleasure of eating is gone, the feelings that cause it remain. And you often may feel worse about eating the amount or type of food you did. That's why it helps to know the differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger.

Next time you reach for a snack, check in and see which type of hunger is driving it.

Physical hunger:

  • comes on gradually and can be postponed
  • can be satisfied with any number of foods
  • means you're likely to stop eating when full
  • doesn't cause feelings of guilt

Emotional hunger:

  • feels sudden and urgent
  • may cause specific cravings (e.g., for pizza or ice cream)
  • can make you eat more than you normally would
  • can cause guilt afterward

Questions to Ask Yourself

The main question to ask yourself is: Is your eating triggered by a specific situation or mood? 

Also ask yourself:

  • Am I stressed, sad, or anxious over something, like school, a social situation, or at home?
  • Has there been an event in my life that I'm having trouble dealing with?
  • Am I eating more than usual?
  • Do I eat at unusual times, like late at night?
  • Do other people in my family use food to soothe their feelings too?

If you answered yes to some of these questions, it's possible that eating has become a coping mechanism instead of a way to fuel your body.

Breaking the Cycle

Managing emotional eating means finding other ways to deal with the situations and feelings that make someone turn to food.

For example, do you come home from school each day and automatically head to the kitchen? Stop and ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" Is your stomach growling? Are you having trouble concentrating or feeling irritable? If these signs point to hunger, choose a healthy snack to take the edge off until dinner.

Not really hungry? If looking for food after school has just become part of your routine, think about why. Then try to change the routine. Instead of eating when you get in the door, take a few minutes to move from one part of your day to another. Go over the things that happened that day. Acknowledge how they made you feel: Happy? Grateful? Excited? Angry? Worried? Jealous? Left out?

Tips to Try

Try these tips to help get emotional eating under control.

  • Explore why you're eating and find a replacement activity.
  • Too often, we rush through the day without really checking in with ourselves. Pause before you reach for food. Are you hungry or is it something else? For example:
    • If you're bored or lonely: Call or text a friend or family member.
    • If you're stressed out: Try a yoga routine or go outside for walk or run. Or listen to some feel-good tunes and let off some steam by dancing around your room until the urge to eat passes.
    • If you're tired: Rethink your bedtime routine. Set a bedtime that allows you to get enough sleep and turn off electronics at least 1 hour before that time.
    • If you're eating to procrastinate: Open those books and get that homework over with. You'll feel better afterward (truly!).
  • Write down the emotions or events that trigger your eating. One of the best ways to keep track is with a mood and food journal. Write down what you ate, how much, and how you were feeling (e.g., bored, happy, worried, sad, mad) and what was happening before you ate. Were you really hungry or just eating for comfort? Through journaling, you'll start to see patterns between what you feel and what you eat. You can use this information to make better choices (like choosing to clear your head with a walk around the block instead of a bag of chips).
  • Practice mindful eating. Pay attention to what you eat and notice when you feel full.

Getting Help

Even when we understand what's going on, many of us still need help breaking the cycle of emotional eating. It's not easy — especially when emotional eating has already led to weight and self-esteem issues. So don't go it alone when you don't have to.

Take advantage of expert help. Counselors and therapists can help you deal with your feelings. Nutritionists and dietitians can help you identify your eating patterns and get you on track with a better diet. Fitness experts can get your body's feel-good chemicals firing through exercise instead of food.

If you're worried about your eating habits, talk to your doctor. They can help you reach set goals and put you in touch with professionals who can help you get on a path to a new, healthier relationship with food.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2022