How to Navigate and Manage Emotional Eating

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is a coping skill we use to change how we are feeling. It can occur when we are experiencing uncomfortable feelings like stress, anxiety, or sadness. It can also be used to fill the boredom void. In general, emotional eating can be a coping mechanism when we are experiencing strong feelings, whether good or bad.

Choosing to eat something because of the way we are feeling is a very normal response to these emotions. Over time, this may start to feel like a problem, or something that is difficult to understand.

Emotional eating can be complex and there may be several factors that influence the cause, solutions, and outcomes. One thing to note about emotional eating is that food can impact the way we are feeling, and vice versa.

Physiological: The Body’s Response

Our food selections and frequencies can lead to emotional eating. When our bodies are not properly fueled, we may feel lightheaded, tired, irritable, anxious, and more stressed than usual. In addition, our ability to regulate emotions and deal with difficult or strong feelings can be impacted by our energy levels.

Our brains rely heavily on food from carbohydrates. When we do not properly fuel our bodies, our brain can have a difficult time adjusting and working.

This can also be true if we have a medical condition that affects blood sugar levels. For this reason, emotional eating and managing blood sugar are two topics that often get intertwined. If you have a diagnosed medical condition such as hypoglycemia or diabetes, it is important to learn how to manage your blood sugar levels.

If you are struggling with emotional eating, take a minute to consider how much and how often you are eating throughout the day. After reflecting on your eating patterns, you may find that you are not emotionally eating at all. Rather, you are simply not eating enough.

Emotional: The Brain’s Response

Think about a time when you enjoyed your favorite food. Now think about WHY that food is your favorite. Is it because you remember sharing it with family members growing up, and it reminds you of home? Maybe it’s because your friend makes it perfectly, and you enjoy sharing it together. Or perhaps it’s because you enjoy the taste and smell of the flavor combinations together.

Usually, many of the foods we truly enjoy and savor have an emotional connection or memory for us. This may not always be the case and in fact, our food choices can be complex. However many of the food choices we make, especially when emotionally eating, may have deeper meaning to them.

Our feelings can impact the food choices we make. When we are experiencing strong or uncomfortable feelings, reaching for a particular food that is associated with good or comfortable feelings can bring about a change in our emotional state. Understanding why you are reaching for certain foods when you feel a certain way may be the first step in discovering why you are emotionally eating.

The Science: Emotional Eating in the Brain

A Harvard Approach:

According to a study completed by the Harvard Brain Science Initiative, study participants were categorized as emotional or non-emotional eaters, and their stress response and urge to eat was studied.

The subjects first performed a task in a stressful environment. This caused a significant cortisol (our main stress hormone) response in the bloodstream. During a second visit, they completed the same task but without the external stressful environment. Scientists measured blood and anxiety ratings before and after both tasks.

While performing tasks, the participants responded to reward cues or neutral cues. The reward cues allowed participants to win a snack point during that trial, while neutral cues were not. Snack points could then be used to “purchase” food after the scanning session. The subjects’ brain response to these tasks was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, also known as fMRI, which is a non-invasive method to assess brain function.

While measuring the brain’s response and speed to different tasks, the outcome of either a success or failure of the task relative to a reward or neutral cue was tracked. The cortisol levels and brain activation of both groups was then compared in three different brain regions involved in reward processing.

The Results:

There were three main outcomes of note for this study.

The first finding indicated that emotional eaters experienced higher levels of anxiety and cortisol when completing the stressful task, but not the control task. Non-emotional eaters did not show significant differences in response to the tasks.

The second finding relates to brain activation. As compared to non-emotional eaters, emotional eaters showed reduced brain activation while responding to reward cues during the stress visit. Results showed that the groups did not have significant variance in brain activation during the control visit.

The third outcome showed relationships between mood and brain reward activation. Those who had the greatest increases in anxiety displayed the lowest levels of brain activation.

How does this apply to me?

While scientific studies can help us learn more about the way we think, act and feel, understanding them can be complicated! We therefore broke it down a little further for you.

Basically, emotional eating may share a common thread with our brain’s emotional state. You may be thinking “Of course it does, that is one of the hallmarks of emotional eating.” However, the difference lies in the details of this study.

This study shows us that when we experience stressful situations, our brain is wired to respond certain ways. In those who identify more with being an emotional eater, this response is triggered and activated neurologically, which leads to a response of eating when in a stressed state.

Also worth noting is that when food is involved as a reward mechanism, there is lower brain activation in certain areas of the brain. This suggests that there are compensatory behaviors at play, as a potential effort to make up for reward circuitry that is lacking. This means that one may feel the need to eat higher quantities of food to feel the same way because the initial response in the brain is low.

This study also indicates that our brain has a way of protecting us from stressful or difficult to manage situations. By understanding more about how our brain is hard-wired to respond to different situations, we can better assess and plan for that particular outcome.

The brain’s response to stress may lead to emotional eating and that is okay. Being comfortable and understanding how our body will respond to these circumstances allows us the opportunity to better ourselves and our response for the future.

Is Emotional Eating Bad?

Emotional eating is simply a time of eating when you are eating for reasons other than hunger. Since food has such an emotional, mental, physical and psychological impact in our lives, it makes sense that feelings and food get their wires crossed. Navigating the world of emotions and food can be difficult. Discovering why you are eating and how you are feeling is a step in the right direction for understanding your relationship with food.

Emotional Eating Can Serve a Functional Purpose

Have you ever shared a meal with a friend because one of you was having a rough day? Have you ever gone to a coffee shop to get a warm, smooth latte when you were feeling down? Some of the choices we make surrounding food have nothing to do with how hungry or full we are, but have everything to do with how we are feeling.

Because our mind and body are connected as one, fueling our bodies for different purposes, whether they are physical or mental, impacts what we choose to eat. Emotional eating can be a way to deal with how we are feeling and can give us the ability to pick ourselves up and keep going.

When to Know if Emotional Eating Is a Problem

Emotional eating may be considered a problem for a few reasons:

You may not know how you are feeling in the first place

Emotionally eating is a way to cope with uncomfortable or strong feelings. If you enter into an eating situation not knowing how you are feeling, it may leave you feeling more disconnected from your feelings than earlier.

You are eating without awareness

Not tasting, enjoying, or savoring the foods themselves may be a sign you are looking to use food to disconnect from your true feelings and emotions.

You may be emotionally eating as a way to punish yourself

You may be thinking to yourself that you already blew your diet, so having something more will not matter. Or, you may be eating because you are scolding yourself for the shape of your body or the weight on the scale. These are all signs that you may be eating as a way to punish yourself rather than eating because of your emotions.

If you eat until you feel physically sick or find that you feel bad while eating, it may be a sign you are using food as a way to punish yourself.

Eating may be taking up more time than is necessary or helpful

Emotional eating can serve many purposes in our days. Depending on why you may be eating, it may be a coping mechanism. However it may be taking up more time and effort in your day than is ideal. 

How to Manage and Prevent Emotional Eating

There are many ways to manage emotional eating. One of the simplest ways is accepting the fact that it happens. While this may not be one of the easiest ways to cope with emotional eating, it is important to understand and recognize when it is happening. Dealing with and understanding emotional eating will look different for everyone, but here are a few different places to start. 

Give Yourself Permission to Eat

Emotional eating may be coming from a place not rooted in hunger at all. Rather, it may be the result of withholding from yourself the foods you wanted in the first place. When we restrict our food choices, we may find that when we choose to eat the foods we cut out, we overeat them.

This can lead to intense feelings of guilt and shame, which can lead to further restrictions the next day. This continues the cycle of guilt and shame when you DO eat those foods.

By allowing yourself permission to eat the foods that you enjoy, you can begin to break that cycle by taking that certain food off of its pedestal. If you know you can have that food whenever you want, it loses its value.

By properly nourishing our bodies with satisfying and interesting food, we can start to find balance in our intake. By giving yourself permission to eat when emotionally eating, you can help heal your relationship with food. You are letting your body know that it is okay and safe to enjoy these foods. 

Practice Intuitive Eating

This may or may not be a new concept to you. If it IS new, we encourage you to read more about it here. Intuitive eating is all about tuning into and focusing on our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. It is a change that recenters the nutrition talk around YOU.

Intuitive eating focuses on re-discovering the cues our bodies are sending to us. While we are all born with the innate ability to understand what hunger and fullness feel like, external factors like social media, family culture and emotions can impact how loudly these signals come through and if we listen to them.

When you are trying to understand more about yourself in relation to emotional eating, getting in tune with your hunger and fullness cues can be a great way to gauge if your hunger is truly coming from emotions or not. Meanwhile if we are experiencing hunger because we are low on energy or have not eaten for a long period of time, the solution is usually food.

When we are feeling hunger that is more tied to emotional discomfort, having something to eat usually will not solve the issue, because it is not the problem. Intuitive Eating helps us re-establish and better understand the reasons why we are hungry and the way to help navigate them.

If you would like to learn more about how you can practice Intuitive Eating, click here for our list of suggested books and resources.

Check in With Yourself

While eating emotionally may seem like a reaction or a habit more than anything else, take a minute to check in with yourself mentally and physically. This helps us understand what our body needs, and helps us determine if food will help us truly feel better. 

Head Check:

Our feelings, emotions, and thoughts can have a large impact on our nutritional choices. The next time you feel you may be eating emotionally, check in with yourself. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I hungry?
  • When was the last time I ate?
  • How am I feeling?
  • What are my emotions like? Am I mad, sad, anxious, tired, or bored? Is there something I am trying to avoid, forget or push off?
  • What emotions do I need to address, and how can I adequately address them? Do I need to talk to someone, take a walk, pause for a mindfulness session, stretch, write in my journal, exercise or watch something that makes me smile? What will truly alleviate or solve my emotional/stressful issue?

Get real with yourself about what is going on. The world of nutrition and feelings overlap constantly; by allowing yourself a minute to check in with your feelings, you give yourself the opportunity to see if food is going to be the solution.

It may be that getting a snack or making a meal is exactly what you needed! Or you may discover that you want to use a different coping skill and come back to food afterwards. Either way, by checking in mentally with ourselves, we become more in tune with our feelings. This helps us to understand what our bodies and minds are telling us. 

Gut Check:

Our bodies need consistent and adequate nourishment to survive. If our body is feeling hungry, it will want to eat. This is something ingrained in our DNA to help us stay alive.

Learning more about ourselves and our hunger cues can help us establish a foundation of eating consistently to help nourish our body. Understanding how much to eat day to day will be up to you, but you cannot appropriately address emotional hunger without first establishing a baseline for your normal intake. 

Use the scale below to better understand Hunger and Fullness Cues that you may be experiencing throughout the day. By checking in with ourselves regarding how we feel, we can learn to become more in tune with our bodies when they are telling us something related to eating habits.

When we are doing a head check and a gut check and notice that we are feeling hungry, we may realize that our bouts of emotional eating may not be coming from emotion at all. Consistently under-fueling our bodies throughout the day may lead to that late-night snacking while watching TV, or grabbing handfuls of snacks throughout the day. These behaviors may actually be a sign of unbalanced or inadequate meals.

If you struggle with listening to your hunger cues, consider reaching out to speak with one of our Registered Dietitians about Intuitive Eating (more on this later). 

Properly Fuel the Body

Emotional eating can be a part of our daily routines for many reasons. While emotional eating may not always be coming from a place of hunger, sometimes it truly can be. By checking in with ourselves, we can properly assess if what we are feeling is actual hunger. And when we are feeling hungry, there is a simple solution: eat!

Building Balanced Meals

Our bodies need fuel (food) to keep us going. If we rarely take the time to eat healthful, balanced meals during the day, it can lead to mindless snacking. This is a subconscious way our bodies seek out more energy (food) to meet our daily nutritional needs.

Building a balanced meal may look different for each person, but a general rule of thumb to consider is having a protein, a carbohydrate, (healthy/unsaturated) fat and color (from fruits and/or vegetables) at each meal. Filling your plate with these four things can be the beginning of properly fueling your body.

Eating Throughout the Day

While you may think that your constant snacking habits stem from emotional hunger rather than physical hunger, take a second to consider what else you have eaten that day. Was it a quick slice of toast on the way to work and nothing until lunch later that afternoon? Or was it a turkey sandwich filled with protein and overflowing with vegetables on a carbohydrate-rich bread?

Depending on what you eat throughout the day, your cravings and interest in eating at all will vary. When understanding if you are emotionally eating, think about what you are eating throughout the day that may be impacting these choices. You may find that you are not emotionally eating at all, but that you are trying to make up for calories you missed out on during the day. 

Consistency is key with managing hunger and fullness throughout the day. By consuming well-balanced meals 2-3 times throughout the day, you can begin to create consistency in your intake. This helps give your body the energy it needs and deserves to keep you going.

Tips to Consider

A few tips to think about, to set yourself up for success: 

  • Write out meal ideas, and have a meal plan that is well-balanced
  • Have nutrient-rich snacks on hand
  • Keep a water bottle close by with cold water in it
  • Make a list of coping mechanisms and strategies to incorporate into your morning routine, daily habits, and nightly regimen
  • Identify your triggers and how to navigate them if they come up
  • Get support and accountability from someone else

If you are struggling to determine the right amount of food for you, schedule an appointment with one of our Registered Dietitians. Book a full session, or schedule a 15 “Learn More” phone call at no cost, to see if we are a good fit for you. 

What Things Can Be Done Besides Emotional Eating?

Retraining our brain is key to breaking the emotional eating cycle from stress and boredom. Below are some ideas of what you can do instead of eating. Select 2-5 things to do to manage your stress and boredom that are not food based.

Activities To Do Besides Eating when Feeling Emotional

  • Journaling: Writing down what’s on your mind and how you are feeling can help you gain perspective, and provide a healthy outlet for your emotions.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Try using this technique of progressive muscle relaxation to relax your mind and body.
  • Go for a Walk: Studies have shown that regular physical activity can be a helpful way to manage stress and difficult emotions. So walk outside in the sunshine, or listen to a new podcast while on the treadmill.
  • Take up a New Craft or Hobby: Trying your hand at something new or something you have not done in a while can help to dust off the cobwebs in different areas of your brain. By challenging ourselves to doing something outside of our norm or comfort zone, we teach ourselves to be okay with being uncomfortable. 
  • Playing with a Furry Friend: Bored? Spend time playing with a furry friend. You may find engagement and calmness after spending time with them
    • Tip: If your animal loves a good walk, take them out for some fresh air. It provides a nice change of scenery for both of you.
  • Spending Time with Loved Ones and Friends: Is feeling lonely or depressed a driving force behind your eating habits? Make plans to spend time with loved ones or friends, whether on the phone or in person. Spending time with people who make us happy can improve our mood.

Getting Support

Meet with a Registered Dietitian

Understanding emotional eating can be a difficult task to undertake alone. If you need more support in your nutritional journey, schedule a session with one of our Registered Dietitians.

Meet with a Therapist

There may be many reasons why you are emotionally eating throughout the day. While some of them may be related to nutrition, others may be related to your mental state. Speaking with a therapist or counselor can be a helpful way to understand your emotions. It can also be a way to better accept your feelings, and cope with your emotions.

Talk to your Doctor

Understanding your health, both mentally and physically, can be a daunting task. Figuring out the reasons why we are eating and working through them may require a high amount of support. Speaking to your doctor can help. They can provide guidance and resources so you can better understand your health. They can also determine if your health habits would benefit from making any changes.

In Summary

Emotional eating can be a tricky road to navigate. There are many different factors to consider when looking at your eating patterns. Understanding the brain and body’s response to how we are eating may shed new light on our patterns. Checking in with your head and gut can be a helpful way to start understanding your nutritional habits. Additionally, eating consistently throughout the day and building balanced meals can help you recover from emotional eating. Find other activities to do besides eating when you are stressed or bored. Get support from Registered Dietitians, therapists and doctors who can provide further guidance.

Emotional eating may serve a purpose, whether it is physical, mental, emotional or physiological. It is important to give ourselves permission to eat. However if you feel you need more help with emotional eating, we are here for you. Book a session with one of our Registered Dietitians. Or schedule a “Learn More” phone call at no cost, to see what we can do to help.