How To Manage Emotional Eating

Food not only satiates our physical hunger, it can also influence our mood before and after eating. You could have certain foods that you lean towards when you are feeling a little low or when you are bored. And there are some foods you probably seek when you are feeling happy and upbeat.

Emotional eating is when you eat for reasons other than hunger. Eating is triggered by an emotion rather than physical hunger. This can be a huge problem when you are trying to shed some pounds and get fit. So how to overcome this big hurdle to weight loss?


1. Learn to Know the Difference

There are lots of differences between emotional hunger and actual physical hunger. Become familiar with these first so you can identify what is actually going on with you when you next get the urge to eat.

With physical hunger, you can usually wait for a while to eat, but with emotional hunger feels like it should be fed immediately with the specific food you crave.

You tend to be more flexible with food options when you are physically hungry. When your hunger is prompted by emotions, you tend to be very specific about what you want to eat and only that food will satisfy your hunger.

Emotional hunger has a tendency to sneak up on you, whereas actual hunger is gradual and you generally don’t experience it suddenly.

When you eat in response to physical hunger, you stop when you feel satiated but with emotional hunger, you eat even when you are full and keep eating beyond the normal point of satiety.

Guilt usually ensues when you eat in response to emotions whereas physical hunger is not followed by guilt.

2. Types of Comfort Foods

One discerning factor about emotional hunger is the focus on one specific food, usually some “comfort food”.  These are usually a particular food that you eat to influence your mood – to either acquire a certain feeling or maintain it. People don’t always turn to comfort foods in response to negative emotions. Many times, people turn to comfort foods because they’re feeling good and they want to maintain that wonderful feeling.

Ice cream is generally the top comfort food, followed by cookies or chocolate for women. Men generally opt for steak, casserole or pizza. According to research, which comfort foods a person chooses usually depends on the kind of mood that person is in. Those who are happy usually go for pizza or steak and those who are feeling low usually choose ice cream and cookies. Those who are bored usually grab a bag of potato chips.

3. Emotional Overeating

Experts say that 75% of overeating is due to feelings. Most of us eat in response to emotions every now and then. However, if that becomes the primary way that we cope with emotions, it can become a big problem. Especially because most comfort foods are not healthy. And since you’re eating when your body is not necessarily hungry, most of these are extra calories outside of what your body requires. These extra calories get stored as fat and make you overweight or obese and increase your risk for certain serious health conditions like heart disease and hypertension.

4. Identify Emotional Eating

Keeping a food diary will help you recognize your eating patterns and when you eat in response to genuine hunger versus a response to emotions. Rank your hunger on a 1-10 scale so that you become more aware of the true reason for your eating. Eating in response to emotions is a learned behavior. As children, we are made to feel better when we are unwell or upset by getting candy or ice cream, etc. This gets reinforced as we grow up and as adults also, we seek comfort from our favorite foods, no matter how unhealthy they are. This actually cripples our ability to learn new and healthy ways to cope with negative emotions.

5. Stopping Emotional Eating

Here are a few things you can do to change your emotional eating habits:

  • Recognize emotional eating and identify what triggers this behavior in you.
  • Make a list of fun things to do when the urge to eat strikes but you aren’t actually hungry. Carry this list with you wherever you go and do something on the list when you get that urge hits.
  • Try to find a healthy comfort food that you can allow yourself.
  • If you have to give in, try limiting portions. If your comfort food is ice cream, opt for small scoop rather than a sundae. Moderation will help reduce overeating.
  • Go for a walk, do housecleaning, read a great book, play a computer game, call a friend or do something else to distract yourself.

Sometimes all you need is a few bites of something to get that “feel good” experience. This will help avoid overeating while still satisfying your urge. Again, moderation is key and can really help curb this problem.

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