4 Proven Steps to Stop Emotional Eating

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Every one of us decides to eat for reasons other than in reaction to physical hunger.  Eating to fill an emotional need rather than satisfy physical hunger is most frequently referred to as “emotional eating.”  Sometimes, we eat emotionally in response to positive happenings like celebrations, achieving milestones, social engagements, or marking the end of a long work week.  In other instances, we choose to eat in reaction to feelings of stress, sadness, or boredom.  Regardless of what emotions are causing us to eat, regular emotional eating has been shown to lead to obesity and can certainly sabotage even the most well thought out weight loss plan.

Have you ever walked into a dense fog or hiked to the top of a clouded-in mountain?  If so, you will be able to relate to how it feels to attempt to gain a handle on emotional eating.  From the outside, it is easy to see where the fog begins and ends, but when you are in it, you lose all sense of its borders and can even forget that it is surrounding you.  The same is true for emotional eating.  When you are in the heat of the moment, it is hard to recognize that you are eating to fulfill an emotional need, but in retrospect, it becomes quite clear that you were eating for reasons other than physical hunger.

The good news is that through my work as a behavioral health doctor, I have helped hundreds of people to control and even eliminate their habit of emotional eating.  By the end of this article, you too will be able to manage your emotional eating through learning:

  • The differences between physical and emotional hunger
  • The underlying causes of emotional eating
  • What you can do to reduce and eliminate emotional eating

The Difference Between Physical and Emotional Hunger

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We become physically hungry because our body needs energy and nutrients.  To alert us of our hunger, our endocrine and neurological systems work together to send signals to our brain, letting it know that it is time to eat.  This deeply rooted response to physical hunger works quite well, which anyone who has experienced hunger can attest.  Our brain and stomach are relentless in their reminders to eat and to do it quickly.  Similarly, our body is adept at telling us that we are full.  This response happens when nerves in our stomach send signals to our brain, altering us that it has stretched enough and that we should stop eating.  However, this efficient system of responding to physical demands is rendered useless when we eat in response to our emotions.  

Often, food cravings generated by emotions are confused with physical hunger cues.  The act of eating food in reaction to boredom, happiness, loneliness, sadness, and joy is not unusual.  When eating in response to these emotions is restricted to a few exceptional scenarios such as significant life moments (good and bad), it is of little consequence to your weight and health.  However, routinely eating to meet an emotional need rather than fulfilling physical hunger can make it challenging and nearly impossible to lose weight.  For this reason, it’s essential to learn how to recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger. 

To recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger, you’ll need to understand what signs your body is sending your way and how they manifest.  I’ve compiled these signs within a table so that you can easily understand the critical differences between hunger generated due to physical and emotional needs:

Signs of Physical Hunger

Originates in the gut- manifests as a growling stomach or nausea.

Comes on gradually 

Can be satisfied with a variety of food options

Signs of hunger will reside after nutritional needs are met.

Signs of Emotional Hunger

Originates in the brain- manifests as anticipation of how you will feel differently after you eat or as a fantasy about the taste of a particular food. 

Comes on suddenly 

Is met by eating a particular type of food 

Your desire to eat may continue even after the point of feeling physically full and may result in feelings of guilt or shame after you eat.

The Underlying Causes of Emotional Eating

When we eat in response to hunger cues, we are eating to fill a physical need.  However, the cause of emotional eating is much less exact.  Several leading theories suggest that people often overeat to reduce emotional discomfort and anxiety (1-3). Familiar feelings of emotional distress include; stress, loneliness, and boredom.  We often look to “treat” or distract ourselves from these feelings by eating “comfort foods.”  Comfort foods, foods high in fat and sugar, have been shown to provide temporary relief from emotional discomfort by stimulating our brain’s pleasure centers.  These foods have also been shown to offer this same relief to individuals coping with mood disorders.

Research suggests that people managing a mood disorder may be more likely to practice regular emotional eating, which can lead to weight gain (1-3). Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are frequently associated with chronic emotional eating.  Although anxiety and depression bring about very different feelings of psychological discomfort, eating to soothe these feelings of distress is a typical response.

Anxiety

Anxiety, defined as intense and persistent worry about everyday situations, is one of U.S. adults’ most common mood disorders.  Studies show that people who have anxiety symptoms and conditions are more likely to eat a large amount of food in a short period of time while feeling a loss of control over their eating when compared to the general population (4).  This correlation adds up as eating foods high in fat and sugar can provide a feeling of short-term relief for someone dealing with anxiety.  The same can be said for people looking to soothe feelings of depression.

Depression

People suffering from untreated depression experience a persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in preferred activities that cause significant impairment in daily life.  Like those who are managing an anxiety disorder, people experiencing depression are more likely to consume high fat and sugar foods as an attempt to relieve their negative feelings (5).  Eating these types of foods can provide an immediate, albeit short-lived sense of mood enhancement for people with depression.  Individuals managing anxiety, depression, or even dealing with chronic stress must find ways to curb their emotional eating habits to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

To learn more about managing your mood disorder and achieving your ideal weight, please read Weight Lost: 5 Steps to Achieving Your Ideal Weight and Gaining the Life You’ve Always Wanted

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What You Can Do to Reduce and Eliminate Emotional Eating

Now that you understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger and what causes emotional eating let’s discuss the steps you can take to reduce or even eliminate emotional eating.   Through my work supporting patients and clients to curb their emotional eating, I have developed a four-step process that has been shown to help people handle their habit of emotional eating time after time.  These four steps are:

  1. Pause before eating 

  2. Identify the source of hunger

  3. Identify triggers

  4. Use substitutes

Step 1: Pause Before Eating

The first step is the simplest and, at the same time, the hardest to implement.  If you can get in the habit of pausing before immediately reacting to your body’s desire to eat, you are halfway home.  This concept may not sound like a big deal, but 99% of us get an urge to eat and then react to that urge by immediately finding and eating food.  Very few of us take a moment to pause and ask ourselves, “why do I want to eat?” which is precisely what I’m going to ask you to do in step number two.

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Step 2: Identify the Source of Your Hunger

Okay, so you have a desire to eat, and you’ve paused before fulfilling this desire, now what? Now you need to ask yourself: “why do I want to eat?”  If your stomach is rumbling and you determine that you are physically hungry, then, by all means, eat, please eat.  But if you recently ate, aren’t feeling any physical signs of hunger, and your desire to eat came suddenly, then chances are you are eating to meet an emotional need.  In this case, the next step you’ll want to take is to identify what triggered this feeling.

Step 3: Identify Triggers

Identifying your food triggers starts by noticing the circumstances around you when you most often crave food. What happened around you that caused you to want to eat?  Did you just get in a fight with your spouse?  Are you hanging out alone and feeling lonely?  Did your boss just stress you out?  By identifying triggers and the emotions created by these triggers, you can better understand what emotional need(s) you are trying to meet with food.   Once you pinpoint these feelings, you can take the next step to fulfill your emotional needs with something other than food, aka using substitutes.

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Step 4: Use Substitutes

The worst thing you can do to manage emotional eating is to deny yourself the ability to meet your needs through food without providing an effective substitute.  To switch from meeting your emotional needs by eating food to an alternative behavior, it is best to have this behavior planned before the need arises.  For instance, let’s imagine you get a craving for a piece of chocolate cake.  You successfully take step one by pausing to ask yourself, why am I hungry?  You then take steps two and three by identifying the source of your hunger as being emotional and by identifying your trigger as being home alone on a Saturday night and feeling bored.  So far, so good, right?  However, if you don’t have an effective substitute behavior ready to go, guess what?  You are going to eat the cake anyway.  But, if you determined that when you find yourself bored and looking to eat that you will call a friend or family member to catch-up, rather than to eat, you can put this plan into action as a superb substitute that will allow you to skip the cake.

Summary

Now that you understand what it means to feel emotional hunger and how it can be managed or even eliminated by using four tested steps, you are ready to control what you eat and why you eat it.  Remember, when  you feel hungry, take these four steps before reaching for food:

  1. Pause
  2. Identify the source of your hunger
  3. Identify environmental triggers
  4. Use a substitute

I’m fully confident that you can follow the steps outlined in this article to eliminate your emotional eating habit. Still, if you’d like to explore these steps in more detail, you can do so by reading WeightLost: 5 Steps to Achieving Your Ideal Weight and Gaining the Life You’ve Always Wanted, which will be released on Amazon in early 2021.  Claim your copy of the book by clicking here.   Weight-Los-logo-v2

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