We don’t always eat to just satiate our hunger. Sometimes we use food to meet emotional needs, or to relieve stress and boredom, or to cope with unpleasant emotions like sadness, anger, loneliness, frustration – the list can be long.

Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort and gives a brief sense of relief or distraction when we’re feeling something that we don’t want to feel.

Finding comfort in food is not uncommon and, in moderation, it generally isn’t an issue. Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward or a celebration isn’t a problem. However, if eating is our primary emotional coping strategy and we depend on eating to soothe difficult emotions, then we can get stuck in an unhealthy cycle. As with many habits when over-indulged, emotional eating can be bad for our health.

Left unaddressed, it can result in difficulties with overeating, achieving weight loss and obesity.

Are you an emotional eater?

Physical and emotional hunger can easily be confused, but there are key differences between the two. Pay attention to how and when your hunger starts.

Signs that you may be emotionally eating include feeling hunger suddenly and intensely. Physical hunger occurs gradually. Emotional eaters also tend to crave high-calorie junk foods rather than seeking to eat balanced meals that satisfy. Importantly – this is the big clue – the urge to eat is pre-empted by an uncomfortable or undesirable emotion, such as stress, boredom, sadness, anger, guilt, or frustration.

Alas, emotional eating sometimes does not reduce distress but instead intensifies angst by sparking feelings of guilt or shame after an emotional eating session.

Here’s some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I keep eating when I’m full or eat when I’m not hungry?
  • Do I feel powerless around food?
  • What do I do when I’m stressed/do I eat more when I’m stressed?
  • Do I eat to feel better?
  • Do I eat to calm or soothe myself when I’m sad or worried or angry or lonely or bored…?
  • What life events and hassles of daily living trigger these feelings?

What can you do about emotional eating?

Tackling emotional eating involves learning healthier ways to view food, developing better eating habits, recognising your triggers and developing other ways to prevent and manage stress.

Here are some ideas:

  • Keep a food diary. Recording what you eat and when you eat it may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating.
  • Learn other ways to manage your emotions. If you don’t have strategies to cope other than eating, then it will be tough to change your eating habits.
  • Tell yourself that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, scared, tired and the like. Approach your feelings with kindness and curiosity. This includes the feelings of guilt that often follow an emotional eating episode.
  • Recognise the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
  • If you have a craving, pause and wait for five minutes before eating. While you’re waiting, notice how you’re feeling. Emotional eating is often mindless, pausing allows you to understand what underpins the craving. When the time is up, make your decision. Go easy on yourself if you elect to eat.
  • Remove temptation. Limit the hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Don’t do the grocery shopping if you’re angry or sad.
  • Eat mindfully and eat with pleasure. Eat your meals in a calm place (not in front of the TV!). Take small bites. Eat slowly. Notice the texture, the flavours, the smell. Pause and take the time to consider if you are full before accepting another helping or dessert.
  • Be kind to yourself. It takes time and practice to shift your mindset and learn other skills to cope with uncomfortable emotional states.

Please contact us if you would like to book an appointment with one of our Psychologists or our Dietitian.