How to Stop Emotional Eating and Make Peace with Food

Do emotions drive your eating? Sadness, boredom, exhaustion finds you at the bottom of a tub of ice cream, wondering how you got there. 

Maybe you’re so accustomed to using food to drown your feelings, that each time you’re stressed you gravitate towards food. The urge is so strong that it seems uncontrollable.

Having spent many years of my early adulthood as a self-confessed emotional eater, I know just how distressing it can be. Especially because you feel so ashamed after that last spoonful. 

Worse, is that each evening you promise yourself that tonight’s going to be different, but somehow you find yourself munching through the contents of the fridge at a quarter to ten.

So what exactly is emotional eating? It’s officially viewed as “eating in response to negative feelings”, but is emotional eating as bad as diet culture would have you believe, or is it something that’s OK just to live with?

The first thing to understand about emotional eating is that sometimes what feels like emotional eating can simply be your body’s response to food restriction. When we restrict food (in the form of diets or restrictive healthy eating plans), this can lead to more thoughts about the exact foods you are restricting. Oh the irony.

Then we start obsessing about these “forbidden foods”, so when we eventually cave in and eat them, we feel guilty and often out of control. It’s this that can sometimes be labelled as emotional eating.

And remember, eating is emotionally loaded. We eat to celebrate, we bake to show love and we share intimacy over meals out. Significant life events are celebrated with food, it’s love, it’s comfort and it’s reward. In fact, food is so emotionally charged that it’s no surprise if you feel emotionally attached to food.

Food is a necessary part of life, but what if you don’t know the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger?

The Mayo Clinic outlines some differences to help you separate the two. Significantly, physical hunger develops slowly, you feel hungry for a variety of foods, and you start to feel fullness as you eat. On the other hand, emotional hunger comes on quickly, it’s urgent, you often crave only one food, and it may lead to a binge.

Eating has emotional connotations, but why do we use food to drown emotions?

In life we’ll experience emotions like anger, frustration, loneliness and boredom. Yet eating isn’t going to fix these emotions – it may provide temporary relief from negative feelings, but it doesn’t last long, does it?

If you are someone who regularly eats when you’re not physically hungry, it’s worth considering what your triggers are. It could be procrastination, boredom or worry. Have you ever eaten to distract yourself from boredom, or unconsciously munched through a packet of biscuits because of work stress? 

As well as distraction, you might use food to numb emotions – eating a tub of ice-cream when you’ve had a fight with your partner can certainly numb those feelings.

If you occasionally use food to distract, or numb emotions, it probably isn’t such a big deal. But regularly responding to life’s stressors by eating food may be bad for your health, since it’s related to overeating, depression and anxiety. 

So what can you do if you suspect you may be emotionally eating? Whether you are eating because of mild emotions or feeling out-of-control with binges, these three questions can help:

  1. Am I biologically hungry? 

If that’s a yes, then eat something! If it’s a no, then ask…

  1. What am I feeling at this moment? 

When you’re not hungry and you reach for food, it’s time to explore your feelings. If you have spent years squashing your feelings, it may take time to learn how to do this. 

Here’s some ideas to try: write down what you are feeling in a journal, call or text a close friend and talk about your feelings. Or, if you’d rather not speak to anyone, you can record your feelings using a voice note. Crying, or simply allowing the emotions to wash over you can be helpful.

3. Do I need something?

Sometimes we eat to fulfil an unmet need. I say this as a psychologist: it is genuinely OK to sometimes use food to cope with feelings as long as it’s not your only coping strategy. However, if you distract yourself from boredom by eating chocolate in front of the TV every single evening, then it might be time to try something else to help you feel nurtured.

Perhaps you need more rest because you are tired, and going for a nap is the most nurturing thing you could do. Perhaps you could read a book, listen to some music, do a puzzle, listen to an audio book, take some deep breaths or meditate.

Maybe your body needs something a bit more active. You could take a walk around the block, go outside into nature, swim, dance to some music, do some stretches or just hang out with a friend.

Bottom line is that we are all emotional eaters from time to time – and that’s OK. But if it’s routine and has become a habit, then taking the time to explore your needs is important.  This will help you make peace with the eating experience, and stop you feeling so out of control around food.

Dr. Lara Zibarras is a psychologist and food freedom coach, helping clients create a healthy and happy relationship with food. You can learn more about Lara’s approach to food freedom here, or find her on Instagram and YouTube


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