Emotional Eating and Why We Do It

Janette Marsac, LMSW, RDN on Aug 18, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Ever find yourself hankering for something sweet? How about some salty, fried food? Sudden need to crunch on something? You could be experiencing food cravings to curb an emotional reaction. Emotional eating is turning to food to suppress or soothe uncomfortable feelings. It’s using food to fill emotional needs in order to feel better. These cravings usually come on fast, strong, and unprovoked. Emotional eating may be in response to stress, anxiety, sadness, or to seek a reward.

Pay attention to your feelings next time you find yourself reaching for something to snack on or when "you just have to have it."  You may discover an underlying feeling you’re ignoring. Many foods even mock the desired feeling. For instance, if you’re experiencing high anxiety and stress, you might find yourself reaching for some crunchy pretzels or chips. The crunchy foods mimic the body’s desired somatic response of restlessness and jitters. Fried foods that sit heavy are often consumed in response to feeling sad, deflated, or depressed; they mimic the desire to feel grounded. And sweet foods are often in response to a desired reward; we reach for them when we’re seeking external validation. While these responses are common, it’s worth spending time exploring your inner feelings when you start jonesin’ for something out of the blue.

So why do we emotionally eat?

Emotional eating is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It’s a negative way of dealing with adverse feelings. Emotional eating can stem from society trends, like food as a reward. It can be learned from parental figures, like negotiating with food ("Finish all your food on your plate if you want dessert") or giving children snacks when they have emotional outbursts to soothe a tantrum. It can also stem from good memories — like nostalgia of having ice cream with friends on a summer day as a kid or parties, barbecues, and family events. Emotional eating can also feel like the desired emotional response. Eating a lot of food ("stuffing" food into your mouth) can feel like stuffing down emotions that would rather be avoided. Eating can also feel like filling a void, such as emptiness.

So what do we do when we find ourselves emotionally eating?

Here are some tips to stop emotional eating:

Understand the difference between emotional cravings and physical hunger. Emotional cravings can be so strong, it’s hard to distinguish between the two. These questions may help distinguish between emotional reaction and physical need. Asking: Did the need to eat come on suddenly? Is it urgent? That imminent need to eat is an indication it is emotionally driven. Physical signs of hunger are gradual; they’re nonurgent. Our bodies are adaptive and can wait long periods of time for food. Emotional urges demand instant satisfaction. Emotional eating also tends to crave junk foods: salty, sweet, fried. Physical hunger will crave what our body needs to function — certain vitamins and minerals, fiber, carbohydrate, healthy fats. If you find yourself craving all the goodies, it’s a good indication it’s coming from an emotional response.

Pause. Cravings come on suddenly and emotional eaters often report feeling powerless. Remember emotions are energy-driven, and they only remain at their energy level if we fuel them with our thoughts or behaviors. So when a craving comes on, stop, ask "What am I feeling right now? What am I craving right now? What just happened that might have triggered me?" Doing a quick check-in with your mind and body can gain insight into your current emotional state. Acknowledge your emotion. Wait a few minutes. This is a good time to implement a healthy coping skill to handle your emotions instead of eating.

Learn to accept your feelings. Feelings have no free will. They orbit around our lives and make themselves known throughout. It’s how we respond to them, interact with them, and behave towards them that influences our mood. The more energy we expend on them, the longer they’ll linger. See them, know they exist, know they are a part of our lives, but they are not our whole lives. Feelings don’t define a person. Try not to let the feeling (or avoiding the feeling) consume your thoughts. It might be helpful to remember they will not linger forever and we are not our feelings, rather people who experience the feeling.

Maintain your mental health. Ever notice sometimes it’s the smallest things that set us off? Emotional eating is often not from one trigger, rather a compilation of events. Physical and mental wear and tear lowers our threshold to tolerate an adverse event. It’s that last straw that we give in to cravings and maladaptive behaviors. Participating in daily activities that maintain mental health will help support your wellbeing. Prioritizing mental health supports the mind in maintaining an objective lens and balance, so when something negative occurs, it’s perceived as less tolling. Maintaining mental health may look like getting adequate sleep, eating and not skipping meals, planning rest throughout the day, exercising, and socializing.

Ask for help. Emotional eating isn’t a habit that formed overnight. It’s years of learning maladaptive behaviors stuffing feelings deep down. It’s learned in childhood and reinforced daily in our society. When you’ve tried halting emotional eating only to find yourself more stressed and self-defeated, finding a therapist trained in CBT may help. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps identify negative emotions and the unproductive thoughts associated. CBT flips the script and helps a person replace these negative thought patterns with productive ones.

Janette Marsac is a Psychotherapist Website

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