How to manage emotional eating

Brendan Street, our Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, provides some insight into why we may eat emotionally and provides some tactics to helps us limit it.

The continued uncertainty regarding how the current COVID-19 pandemic will develop is leading to high levels of stress in many of us. In addition, many of us find ourselves either in home environments with easier access to food or in busy environments where access to food is difficult.

A stressful situation will often lead to people experiencing substantial changes to their eating habits (CDC, 2020). This is described as ‘emotional eating’. In essence we often start to eat (or not eat) in a conscious or unconscious effort to suppress or soothe negative emotions (Mayo Clinic).

How to know if you are an emotional eater

When we feel strong emotional states, some of us are more likely to binge eat - eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time while feeling unable to stop. Alternatively, we may “graze”. This is where we may find ourselves eating constantly throughout the day. Every time you pass the fridge the door magically opens and throws food at you!

Others may restrict their eating. This may be an attempt to feel control over something during a time of great uncertainty.

Or, for some of us, a situation such as the current pandemic may have led to fear around the availability, accessibility, and cost of future food. This in turn may lead to restricting what we eat.

Why do you eat when you are stressed?

There are many psychological and biological reasons why we eat when we feel stressed.

  • It can decrease negative emotions in some, serve as a distraction from challenging life realities or as a coping mechanism during unpredictable times
  • Stress is associated with changes in cortisol, which plays a critical role in energy regulation and alters appetite
  • When stressed we tend to crave food higher in fat and sugar because our body requires more energy to function. Simple carbs are the fastest way to get a quick injection of energy.

How to stop emotional eating

Consider how you eat

Emotional eating tries to reduce stress or boredom or reward, rather than satisfy hunger. It is linked to emotional hunger, which is sudden, and led by the head not the stomach. It craves specific foods and isn’t satisfied, even when full. This can lead to feeling guilt which further fuels a negative cycle.

Physical hunger on the other hand, is emotion free. It comes on gradually and is located in the stomach and is satisfied when full without any feelings of guilt.

Mindful eating can help differentiate between emotional and physical hunger. You really pay attention to and notice your eating in the moment so that you are more aware of the triggers for eating. This helps you understand the links between your emotions and your food intake.

Tips to ensure you respond to physical and not emotional hunger:

  • Pre-plan. You are more likely to make mindful food choices if you plan your meals for the week rather than responding to emotional cravings
  • Stop to eat when you would normally be hungry. This way you learn to respond to hunger cues. Don’t wait until you are ravenous and make sure you actually stop to eat. Eating whilst on a conference call or whilst emailing will always be non-mindful, making it more likely that you are responding to emotional hunger.

To help you mindfully eat consider doing the following:

  • Pause before you eat – consider the size of the portion, the colour of the food, the weight of the food in your hand, the smell, the shape
  • Ask yourself if you are hungry - where is it in the body? What shape is the hunger? What colour would the hunger be? Is it a pulsing sense of hunger or a sharp sense or an ache? Just notice this and don't judge
  • Start small and slow - place a small piece of food in your mouth and really notice the sensations, texture, taste & smell. Put your cutlery down between mouthfuls. Don’t rush, rather notice the point at which you are tempted to swallow?
  • Repeat, paying attention - take the next mouthful and repeat the above steps until you have finished the meal.

Focus on your feelings

Let yourself experience feelings away from food. Take time each day to reflect on how you feel and whether it is leading you to crave food in an unhelpful way.

Ask yourself questions like “How am I feeling?" "When do I feel most stressed?”

Look for any patterns

Notice when you increase or limit your food intake. Triggers can also be internal, like thinking “this will never end” or to reward the stress of home schooling.

Ask yourself questions like “What situations, and what kinds of food do I tend to go for”

Eat deliberately

Make a conscious decision to eat, choosing what you will eat and when. Avoid triggers by analysing the thinking and emotions connected to the food.

Ask yourself questions like “Can I pause and ask if I’m actively choosing to eat this?”

Keep connected

Lockdown has led to isolation from our typical routines, communities, and social networks. A lack of social connectedness increases stress.

Maintaining connections (via technology) reduces stress and can help limit emotional eating.

Ask yourself questions like “What would make me feel more connected today?”

Start fresh

Don’t beat yourself up. If you had a bad day or moment do not let it leak into the next. This will only make emotional eating more likely.

Start again from the moment you realise you slipped into emotional eating.

Put a note on the fridge at home

“Is this visit to the fridge an emotional or physical visit?” and put a reminder on your phone such as “Have I eaten today in the way I would look after a loved one?”

Physical health and mental health are intrinsically linked. If you maintain good physical health, your mental health will benefit and vice versa.

Limiting emotional eating will help you maintain good physical and mental health.

Talk to a therapist

If you'd like further advice you can book a call with one of our therapists at a time and date that is convenient for you by using the calendar below. A therapist will help you to understand why you feel like you do, give you time to explore your concerns, answer any questions you have, and if further therapy is required, will discuss with you what approach is right for you to enable you to feel better. If you choose to continue with therapy we can then arrange the support that you need with one of our mental health professionals. Your call will last approximately 30 minutes.

Last updated Monday 25 April 2022

First published on Tuesday 17 January 2017