BlogHealthEmotional Eating: Patterns, Triggers, Causes, Treatment

Emotional Eating: Patterns, Triggers, Causes, Treatment

Mariia Roza
Written by Mariia Roza on May 21, 2021

Table of contents

The hunger-satiety hormones are so well balanced in a human body that it seems weird how some of us end up overeating! Emotional hunger that has nothing to do with physical hunger might be the main reason behind excess weight for most people. 

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Do you often eat when you’re bored, upset, or stressed, just to feel better? If this happens to you at least several times a week, then the chances are you’re an emotional eater. Let’s find out what can cause emotional eating and, what’s more important, what you can do about it.

What causes emotional eating? 

Even those who had perfect coping mechanisms in 2019 were forced to abandon them during the shutdown. Covid pandemic made many people who had to stay at home to gain excess weight. They couldn’t work on their stress, anxiety, loneliness, and anger with the help of standard tools like meeting their friends or having a workout in a gym. 

Even though most places are open again, we’re still struggling with the habit we obtained last year: to use food as a coping mechanism for our emotions. Keep this in mind, and don’t judge yourself too harshly for being an emotional eater.

As a rule, when dealing with emotional eating(1), we’re talking about the incapability of people to cope with emotions they face in ways other than with the help of comforting food. What might make you eat when you’re not physically hungry?

1. Emptiness

Do you sometimes feel like you’re empty inside? As if you’ve met a Dementor and it has sucked all the joy from your life? When we feel this numb, we need to fill ourselves, at least with something. It can be love from our significant others, a meaningful job, Netflix series, or food.

2. Guilt

You’ll be astonished by how many people around you feel guilty! This is because manipulative parents induce this emotion in their children to have better control over them. These children grow up having an inner feeling of guilt that haunts them even in their adult life. There might be no particular situation you feel sorry about, but this immense guilt from your childhood might make you overeat even in your 30s or 40s.

3. Shame

Shame is another popular tool of manipulation used by some parents to control their children. Parents who want their children to be “special,” often induce, willingly or unwillingly, the feeling of shame in their children: The shame of mediocracy. Some people bear this feeling throughout all their lives, and if they can’t deal with it with the help of multiple achievements, they end up coping with shame using comforting food. 

4. Grief

Imagine your sorrow is so great that you try to stuff your mouth with food just to stop yourself from screaming. This is a vivid example of how emotional eating as a result of loss happens. 

5. Boredom

Eating is a great way to spend time. This is why we opt for it when we have nothing else to do. What’s more, unlike a new series or a new video game that might be boring, food will surely bring satisfaction and joy. 

You might have noticed that your lunch is a thousand times tastier if it saves you from doing tedious chores. You will surely try to make it last longer by piling your plate with another helping of food just to postpone the time when you have to go back to work.

6. Anger

As a rule, you’re angry with someone or something. Your body can react to this stress differently, for example, by stimulating hunger. Your brain might think that if you’re angry, there’s gonna be a fight, and you might need some additional energy to demonstrate your best punch!

7. Joy

From our very childhood, tasty food accompanies us when we want to celebrate something. Great dinners for Christmas, Birthday cakes, Halloween candies, pizza night as a reward for an “A” in math, and so on. This habit of rewarding ourselves with food might stay with us even today, and let’s be honest, sometimes we overindulge ourselves.

8. Loneliness

The great curse of 2020 and, maybe, of the whole 21st century, loneliness makes people emotional eaters. Even if you think you’re a sociopathic introvert, you still need people around. We feel lonely when we don’t get love, support, or acceptance, and we try to substitute these emotions, which are crucial for our survival, with the help of food. 

Some examples of emotional eating

Example 1. You’re working on a dull college paper, and you don’t want to do this at all. You decide to start your day with a full English breakfast instead of a habitual cup of coffee. You finish it but still don’t feel like starting your paper. You have an apple as a snack. You’ve managed to push yourself through an introduction part, and you’re stuck again. “Peanut and jam sandwich,” you think. “Peanut and jam sandwich would be nice.” At the end of the day, you’ve barely done anything but have eaten half of your fridge. This is emotional eating as the result of boredom, uncertainty, guilt, and procrastination.

Example 2. Your golden retriever that had been your best friend for 13 years, has just passed away. Every time you look at her favorite armchair, you grab an ice cream. There’s nothing else you want to eat, and even your favorite dessert can’t help you in your grief. 

Example 3. You’ve just broken up with your wife or husband, and now you’re so lonely in your house. There’s no one to hug or talk to, the bed is cold, and you’re strolling around the house finding yourself in the kitchen twenty times a day. 

Example 4. You’ve just got the job of your dream, and now you want to celebrate it! You order four packs of expensive but fancy chocolates and can’t stop until they’re all done. 

How to find out your triggers for emotional eating?

The only way you can understand your triggers is by analyzing your behavior and trying to see patterns in your emotional eating episodes. The best way to do so is by asking yourself some simple questions before every meal or snack.

Am I really hungry right now?

If the answer is “Yes” and you feel hunger not in your brain but your stomach, please, enjoy your meal! If the answer is “No” or “Not sure,” ask yourself the following question:

What do I feel right now?

Go deeper into your feelings and reflect on your answer. If you have troubles indicating your emotions, try to sort out your feelings by asking yourself:

What effect do I expect to get from this food?

Here the answers might be “I just want to get busy with something,” or “I need some endorphins from my favorite dessert,” or “I want to fill in the emptiness inside me,” “I’m just starving and can eat an elephant!” If the latter is what you’re thinking about, please, enjoy your meal! Something might have gone wrong on the first step, and now you’re experiencing physical hunger that should be satisfied. 

How to overcome emotional eating?

Some of the most common recommendations on how to control emotional eating include mindfulness and meditation techniques, eating slowly, and taking away distractions while you eat. Unfortunately, these great tools won’t work if you skip the first step: Understanding the emotions you’re trying to cope with. 

The trouble with emotional eating becomes a real health-threatening problem if you deal with chronic stress(2) and constant bad emotions you can’t cope with. Suppose you lack self-awareness and can’t figure out the feelings and possible traumas behind your self-destructive behavior (overeating is definitely a symptom of self-destructive behavior). In that case, you might need some professional help.

When it’s time to see a doctor?

Though emotional eating isn’t regarded as a disorder, if implemented constantly, it can lead to severe conditions like binge eating disorder(3) and binge-purge cycles like bulimia nervosa(4). If you think that you might need some professional treatment, you most probably do. 

Human beings are immensely complicated creatures, and the chances that your therapist will tell you’re just lazy or have no willpower are minuscule. There must be some case in your past or present or some emotions that make you act the way you do. Your main task is to find out what they are and figure out how to deal with them without food.

Summing up

Dealing with emotional eating is not an easy task. However, this is the only way how you can finally lose weight and maintain it for the rest of your life. Remember that overeating is a sign of self-hatred, and to stop self-destructive behavior, you have to understand what you don’t like in yourself so much. Good shape starts in your brain. It’s not the question of willpower or strict diets. They all will be pointless if you don’t change your eating habits and your attitude to food. 

Remember that losing weight is not about what you eat. It’s about what eats you.

Sources

  • Frayn M., Livshits S., Knauper B. (2018, September). Emotional Eating and Weight Regulation: A Qualitative Study of Compensatory Behaviors and Concerns. Journal of Eating Disorders. DOI: 10.1186/s40337-018-0210-6
  • Chao A. M., Jastreboff A. M., White M. A., et al. (2017, April). Stress, Cortisol, and Other Appetite-Related Hormones: Prospective Prediction of 6-Month Changes in Food Cravings and Weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). DOI: 10.1002/oby.21790
  • Tanofsky-Kraff M, Bulik C. M., Marcus M. D., et al. (2013, April). Binge Eating Disorder: The Next Generation of Research. International Journal of Eating Disorders. DOI: 10.1002/eat.22089
  • Rushing J. M., Jones L. E., Carney C. P., et al. (2003). Bulimia Nervosa: A Primary Care Review. The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. DOI: 10.4088/pcc.v05n0505