emotional eating

How many times have you heard the expression: “I eat when I am anxious” or “I eat when I am under stress!” Probably, you don’t recognize these signs but eating for reasons other than feeling hungry is often called emotional eating. It is true that occasionally you can turn to food for comfort or reward even tough you do not exhibit a particular weakness or compulsion for food. This is not a truly emotional eater, and usually these eating episodic have no consequences on your body weight or health. You will probably recall this event as an interesting anecdote to tell your friends. The serious problem arises when eating becomes your primary emotional coping mechanism whenever you are stressed. When this happens, the individual falls into a vicious circle that includes an emotional phase characterized by sadness, fear, anger, loneliness, boredom, and uncertainty. Eating, resentment, shame, depression, and frustration follow this initial stage. You can get stuck in this unhealthy circle without addressing the real emotional problem that got you into this compulsive eating, in the first place.

If you find harder and harder to deal with your weight control, it is time to take a break and evaluate your relationship between food and your feelings. You will probably realize that you are eating to fill your emotional needs rather than to satisfy your physiological hunger or appetite.  There is no clear-cut explanation for the origin of emotional eating but it might stem from the traditional feeding patterns during infancy. Mothers usually use the bottle as a way to stop crying and this practice could make the baby to associate feeding with comfort. It is known that the primary causes of discomfort in babies are thirst, wet diapers or warm environments but without trying to fix the real cause, mothers resort to bottles to fix the situation.

Now, how can I tell if I am an emotional eater? This can be tricky but here are some key tips that can help you distinguish between emotional and physiological hunger. That would be the first step to break free from this vicious circle named emotional eating.

  1. If you find yourself craving for sugary snacks such ice cream and you feel that nothing else will do. Of course, this crave may be associated with changes in glycemia or insulin but, in any case, it will be better to eat healthier foods such as nuts, fruits, dates or dry figs that will keep you satisfied for longer periods. You can also try to entertain yourself by reading a good book, calling your best friend, or exploring the outdoors. Sometimes, just drinking a sip of water will do.
  2.  Going out to share dinner with friends is no necessarily a bad thing but if you always use food as a reward or to celebrate any occasion or good news, it may be a signal of emotional eating. There are alternatives to emotional eating. You can dance your favorite song, take a brisk walk, go shopping, or get a manicure.  Take your pick! There are many gratifying activities you can enjoy without involving food. Spoil yourself leaving food out.
  3. If you feel anxious, try to practice activities that can move you away from food temptations. Exercising is an effective way to combat anxiety. Do simple but rewarding activities such as playing with dog, call a friend whose conversation always cheers you up. Answer your mail or go to the gym. Any of these activities will make you more relaxed and turn you away from food.
  4. If you are bored. The best-known cure for boredom is to get you busy. You can do some gardening. Rearrange your closet. Call mom and see how she is doing, that will make her happy and that simple call will act as a reward to you too. Here is a good one: invite you friend to go to the movie; yes, you can share small popcorn but relax that won’t represent emotional eating. Be creative and entertain yourself in a healthy manner. Take charge; boredom is no the boss!
  5. If you are sad or depressed. Sadness can affect you any time in life. You can also feel a bit depressed (without being clinically depressed) but that is no justification to dove into a pint of ice cream. It’s ok to cry. You can go to church, listen music, practice yoga or meditation. Do any of these activities until you feel better and go back with your normal life. Forget about the fridge for a while.

The main message we are trying to send you is that food is not the solution to your emotional problems. This does not mean that you have to suppress or obsess over you emotions either. It means that you need to take control of your emotions by being mindful and learn how to repair your emotional troubles without having to resort to food. We invite you to take a few days to evaluate critically your relationship with food. If you detect some indications that you are emotionally related to food, it is time to introduce appropriate changes in the way you deal with your emotions and break free from emotional eating. Food is to be enjoyed because of their nutritive and delicious attributes not as a means to fix emotional problems.


Note: The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice for any questions regarding a medical condition or changes in your treatment.


About the author

Dr. Montserrat Rodríguez

Dr. Montserrat Rodríguez


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