Emotional Eating – Why We Eat When Stressed And How To Break The Habit

Break the habit of emotional eating

Do you feel addicted to food? Or feel like something is wrong with you because you are always eating? Oftentimes, it is when we feel intense emotions (such as anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness or even happiness) that we reach for food.  For some, this can lead to crazy binge episodes, food obsession, or compulsive eating.  If you are after change, this blog will help you break the habit of emotional eating.


The critical question is, ‘How do we manage stressful moments without always going to food’. 


Important to understand to break the habit of emotional eating

Let me be clear.  It is ok to eat.  In fact, food is meant to pleasurable and enjoyed, and we all emotionally eat to a degree.  It only really becomes an issue if food is the only way we cope with life.  In particular, if it becomes a self-medication strategy.

break the habit of emotional eating

What causes emotional eating?

1) Biological

One aspect for emotional eating is the biology of humans that is a cause of our emotional eating or binge eating.  Namely, when we feel big emotional states, our stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) elevate.  This activates our reptilian brain to go into survival mode.  Subsequently, we revert to subconscious patterns of what we know will soothe us.  So, our brain might start signaling that we need large quantities of food to survive.  Consequently, we feel an overwhelming urge to eat.


2) Subconscious patterns from childhood

The second massive reason many of us seek food for comfort, is conditioning from our childhood.  For example, the possible association created from our mum holding us in her arms singing a lullaby and feeding us to sleep.  Or when we got older and received a food reward for cleaning our room.  Or the family getting a takeaway meal to celebrate success.   In short, we learn that food makes us feel good emotionally. 

break the habit of emotional eating

3) Society normalizes emotional eating

Emotional eating seems to be normalized by society.  For instance, how many times do we watch movies and see a girl sobbing with a tub of ice cream to soothe her broken heart?  Similarly, a film where a guy goes to the pub to drink away his sorrows?  Essentially, these messages get fed to us, contributing to our learned and unconscious behaviors. 


What do we do in moments of stress, overwhelm, and sadness?


1) Mindfulness to break the habit of emotional eating 

When the craving kicks in, take a breath to calm down the sympathetic nervous system so we can perhaps make a better decision.  Then ask the following:

  • Why do I want to eat this?
  • Am I using food to comfort myself?
  • How can I comfort myself in a different way?
  • Also, can I feel any sensations or emotions arising in my body and where can I feel them?

2) Acknowledge the feeling 

It is important that we acknowledge how we feel and the accompanying bodily sensations.  Allow space for it.   In fact, many of us want a ‘magic bullet’ to make all our eating issues disappear.  And, probably hearing ‘sit with your feelings’, is not appealing.  Just think about it. You feelings are there for a reason. They give us a message so we can navigate our life. When we take time to listen to the message, we can understand what might be not aligned with our values, if we need to have a conversation with someone or if we need to make some changes in our life.


By avoiding doing so, we continue being unhappy. No amount of food will ever make us happy. What if we could find the courage to ask ourselves what our emotions are telling us so we can create a life we truly desire?


Commonly, the emotion we are avoiding is the reason we eat food (because food changes how we feel).  But, what if we did not need to change how we feel? What if we could be with our emotions and accept them.  


Let me be honest, it won’t feel comfortable initially.  But the feeling will pass.  Emotions pass.  We never feel sad all the time.  We need to learn to accept and create space for emotions.  


And what if, there is true contentment, pleasure, joy and freedom on the other side?

break the habit of emotional eating

Questions to help understand, feel and process the emotion:

  • What am I feeling?
  • Why am I feeling that way?
  • What do I need?
  • How can I meet that need?
  • Do I need a conversation with someone?
  • Would a day to myself be helpful?
  • Do I need a conversation with my partner? A cuddle?
  • Do I need someone to hold a safe space?


Ultimately, sometimes a gentle ear or a cuddle is all we need.  However, we tend to run on autopilot and try and get relief from food.  So, once we interrupt this pattern and allow space we don’t require food. It is really this simple! 


Processing strategies

Sometimes numerous emotions might arise.  If this happens, pick the strongest and the one that requires the most attention.  Take your time to feel and decide what you need to do.   Journal, write it down.  Call a friend and make an appointment to see a psychologist or counselor.  Allow tears, allow the grief, allow the anger. (If you are struggling to feel your feelings, check out this podcast episode hosted by dietitian Paige Smathers from Nutrition Matters – Episode 110: How to Feel Your Feelings with Tiffany Roe)


The goal is to bring the emotion out. 

break the habit of emotional eating

Be courageous to break the habit of emotional eating

Undoubtedly, it takes courage to apply this process and create new habits.  Admittedly, processing and releasing emotions can feel scary at the beginning. However, the more we practice it, the more we can learn to trust ourselves.  Allow the feelings to be, because they are messages – nothing else.   


Free workbook

This blog post is the second Binge Eating Trigger in the blog series of Binge Eating Triggers.  Download the free workbook below to identify 8 hidden triggers for overeating, binge eating, and emotional eating.  You can see which one might apply to you.  


Regain control over food!


Binge eating and emotional eating is not a food problem, it is an emotional problem.


Ultimately, we can’t rely on will-power to stop binge eating. In this e-book I am addressing the underlying reasons why we use food as a drug and what our body is trying to tell us.


Nutrition, Weight Loss, Eating Psychology