Reston Hospital Center July 05, 2018

I’m sad. Let’s eat!

Emotional eating is a slippery slope for those trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. The trick is to manage your stress before the urge to eat kicks in. We’ve gathered top tips to end emotional eating, and some guidance to see if your diet cheats or binges are actually signs of emotional eating. 

Are you an emotional eater?

We don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger. Sometimes, we turn to food to cope with unpleasant feelings, like social anxiety, sadness, loneliness, or boredom. And after eating, we feel even worse: Guilty about the food and still anxious, sad, lonely or bored! 

Using food as a reward – a pint of ice cream to sooth a break up or swinging through the drive-through after a stressful day at work – is not necessarily bad. But when eating becomes your primary emotional coping mechanism and your first impulse, you can get caught in an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating, while ignoring your real feelings. 

Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed, pressured or upset? Do you eat until you’re stuffed? Do you feel out of control around food?

Emotional hunger can be mistaken for physical hunger. Look for these clues to tell them apart:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly and feels urgent. Physical hunger comes on more gradually.
  • Emotional hunger is a feeling you can’t get out of your head – focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells. You may crave specific comfort foods so that nothing will do except cheesecake or onion rings. Physically hunger, on the other hand, makes you desire eating a meal or a snack, anything in a normal diet including vegetables or fruit.
  • Emotional hunger leads to mindless eating – without paying attention or fully enjoying it. Physical hunger is more mindful where food is enjoyed or savored in normal portions.
  • Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You find yourself wanting more and more until you’re stuffed. Physical hunger is satisfied when your stomach is full.
  • Emotional hunger is followed by feelings of guilt, shame or self-consciousness. Eating to satisfy physical hunger, feels like you’ve given your body what it needs nutritionally. 

Take control of emotional eating

Identify your emotional eating triggers: What are the situations, places, or feelings that make you reach for the doughnuts. While most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, it can also be attributed to positive ones – like a celebration. Finding your trigger is the first step to taking control. 

Does stress make you hungry? It’s not your imagination – a chaotic, pressured or fast-paced situation triggers your body to release cortisol, a stress hormone, which in turn triggers cravings for foods that give you a burst of energy and feeling of pleasure or indulgence, like a candy bar. Recognizing stressful moments – and anticipating cravings – allows you to make a better choice. 

Bored? Cooking takes up time and eating occupies your body. Instead, try an activity where you can’t eat, like knitting, jogging or singing. 

Childhood habits, like getting a treat for good behavior, can carry over as bad habits. Instead of stopping for ice cream after a doctor’s appointment, revamp with adult rewards, like calling a friend or getting the car washed. 

Find ways to fulfill yourself emotionally without food – by taking an art class, going to a concert or joining a book club. Activities that let you express feelings and enjoy your time can reframe emotional binges. 

Hit with a craving? Take five. Pausing to reflect for a few minutes gives you time to identify your motivation and make a different decision. Try drinking a glass of water and taking a lap around the room or the block. 

Recognize when you need more help. A counselor or therapist can help you identify and deal with the feelings that are your triggers. When eating gets out of control or leaves you depressed and upset, it’s time to get to the bottom of things. 

When we stop obsessing or suppressing emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings lose their power. Eliminating stressful triggers and being more mindful about eating are healthy steps to end emotional eating. 

Learn more about health-minded lifestyles at Reston Hospital Center. Our physicians and staff can help you create a realistic eating plan and monitor your health indicators.