Dr. Angela Hanford
Unfortunately eating comfort food cannot solve life’s challenges. Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that only provides a temporary fix because it doesn’t address the underlying issue. It may make you feel better in the moment, but it can’t fill the need, and it may even make things worse if it leads to weight gain and/or the additional burden of guilt and shame.
If not addressed, emotional eating may become a habit that leads you to open the refrigerator or pantry door automatically and mindlessly. You’ll be looking for something to eat that will make you feel better every time you are stressed, angry, or sad, or to distract you when you don’t want to have to deal with an uncomfortable situation.
This in turn can lead to an unhealthy, self-perpetuating cycle of reaching for comfort food every time things aren’t going right. You may then beat yourself up for doing it, feeling sad or ashamed, and turning to comfort food to soothe you all over again. It can become a cycle
Emotional Eating Versus Binge Eating Disorder
It is important to distinguish between emotional eating and the diagnosis of binge eating disorder (BED). As defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (2013), The hallmark of BED is that someone engages in recurrent episodes of binge eating.
A binge occurs when someone eats an amount of food that is larger than most people would consume in a similar amount of time and they feel a lack of control over eating. Other characteristics of BED include: eating quicker than normal, eating past feeling uncomfortably full, continuing to eat despite not feeling hungry, solitary eating because of feeling embarrassed by portion size, or feeling upset with oneself after binging.
You need at least three of these characteristics to be present before a binge is diagnosed. Furthermore, the individual must feel distressed about the binging behavior and occur for at least three months before a diagnosis of BED is given. In contrast, emotional eating does not meet the criteria for BED.
Is Your Hunger Physically or Emotionally Driven?
Emotional hunger happens suddenly. When you are emotionally hungry, you feel an urgent need to eat something particular and you want to eat it now. Physical hunger, on the other hand, tends to come on more gradually, and is the result of an empty stomach.
However, sometimes people are not in tune with hunger cues, which can cause someone to notice a sudden feeling of hunger (or not notice it at all). In this case, it is important to become more mindful and learn to recognize how hunger feels in your body. Diagnoses such as attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder and eating disorders are notorious for having an accompanying difficulty with recognizing hunger cues.
Emotional hunger does not come from your stomach. Emotional hunger is aroused by the thought or smell of a particular food rather than by a physical signal such as the rumblings or pangs of an empty stomach.
Emotional hunger craves specific foods. When you’re emotionally hungry, you crave a specific comfort food such as pizza, chocolate, or chips, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger has no “full” signal. When you’re emotionally hungry, you may eat until you feel uncomfortably stuffed, whereas with physical hunger your stomach will signal you when it is full.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you are giving your body what it needs and are unlikely to feel regret for doing so. On the other hand, emotional eating often leads to feelings of guilt or shame.
Common Causes of Emotional Hunger
Stress: Chronic stress causes your body to produce high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that triggers cravings for sweet, salty, and fried foods.
Boredom: Eating comfort food gives you something pleasurable to do.
Feelings of emptiness. Turning to comfort food to try and fill the void you feel within you gives you a false sense of fullness.
Emotional eating can help you numb or “stuff down” uncomfortable feelings you’d rather not have to process.
Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating
1. Identify your triggers. The first step towards breaking the cycle of emotional eating is to identify your triggers. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping a food and mood diary of the situations or feelings that make you want to reach for comfort food. Were you angry, stressed, depressed, worried, lonely, or bored?
Write down what you were feeling, what and how much you ate, how you felt while you were eating it, and what you felt afterward. Note: the goal here is not to diet or restrict food in anyway, but to gain and understanding of how your are coping with your emotions.
2. Find a non-food-related option. Once you have identified your thought patterns, and what comfort food does for you (cheer you up, calm you down, give you a boost of energy), look for non-food alternatives you can turn to instead that will help you cope with the feelings that triggered your urge in a more beneficial way. For instance:
- If you’re feeling lonely, call a friend, do a random act of kindness, or sign up for a class.
- If you’re bored, read a book, watch a movie, or work on a hobby.
- If you’re depressed, confide in a friend, listen to music, journal, or make a list of things for which you’re grateful.
- If you’re stressed, go for a nature walk, do some deep breathing or other calming exercises, or dance to your favorite song.
- If you’re feeling angry, punch a pillow, do some cardio, or write out your feelings.
3. Take a pause. Emotional hunger craves a specific food and wants it right away. Acknowledge that the food sounds good, but tell yourself you’re going to wait ten minutes before eating it to see if you still want it. Then do something to distract yourself from thoughts of food, like call a friend, take a little walk, or drink a glass of water.
Chances are the urge will have passed by then, or at the very least, it will no longer feel so intense. Doing this step consistently will start to rewire your brain and change the way you respond to your cravings by removing the sense of urgency.
4. Learn from setbacks. Instead of judging yourself or beating yourself up, think of what you can learn from the experience and what you can do to prevent it from happening in the future.
5. Ask God to help you. We have all been created with a void that can only be filled by Him. Food will never be able to make you feel complete. When you turn to God for help, he will strengthen you to overcome your struggle one choice at a time. Following are some verses to encourage and empower you in your moments of temptation.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13, ESV
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. – Psalm 107:13-14, ESV
Additional Strategies: Dos and Don’ts
Restrictive food rules don’t work because they’re all about encouraging self-control, which is not usually the issue with emotional eating. The real issue is the underlying feeling that’s causing you to turn to food for comfort, and food rules can’t counter emotional problems.
Judging yourself also doesn’t work, because it only adds other strong emotions to your load, like guilt and shame, which then make it even harder for you to cope with your feelings. You can’t shame yourself into overcoming emotional eating.
Instead, targeting the underlying emotion is important to overcome emotional eating. Rather than judging yourself or trying to suppress hard to handle emotions with food, acknowledge what you’re feeling and look for a productive solution to address it. Also, consider counseling. A trained mental health professional can help you understand why you eat emotionally and teach you healthy coping skills.
Help for Emotional Eating
If you feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to tackle emotional eating, reach out today for an initial evaluation. We are here to discuss practical techniques for dealing with emotional eating, help you manage the challenges you face, and support and encourage you along the way.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
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