Emotional eating is eating in response to how we're feeling instead of our physical hunger. It's most commonly used as a coping mechanism to soothe, change, or escape negative feelings (like stress, anxiety, and boredom). However, emotional eating also occurs when celebrating a win, birthday, or life event where positive emotions and socializing are present. Regardless of the circumstances, emotional eating can confuse our hormones and feelings and take us further away from listening to our body's actual hunger cues.
Causes and examples of emotional eating:
When stressed, we release more cortisol, increasing our appetites and cravings. We mostly crave fatty, sweet, and salty foods since they give us the most energy, and dealing with problems usually requires a lot of energy—more so in our evolutionary past than now. However, our physiology hasn’t caught up with our modern reality. And so, we tend to respond to stressful situations as we would have many millennia ago—Stress response → Heightened cortisol → Eat.
Imagine you're working hard to finish a deadline, but you're nowhere near finished and you can't seem to concentrate. The stress is building, and you've reached your breaking point—you need to escape. You find yourself procrastinating to try and avoid the stress, and you order takeout because you "deserve a break.”
Late-night overeating is one of the most common responses to boredom and isolation:
It's the end of yet another day working from home. You haven't seen friends or people in person in a while. You're tense, have no plans, feel a little lonely, and you turn to Netflix and snacks to zone out and numb whatever it is you don't want to feel.
You've been restricting food all day because you want to lose weight. Maybe you ate a boring salad for lunch and skipped breakfast. Now, it’s the end of the day; you’re exhausted and stressed from work. You're depleted, physically and emotionally, so you get takeout or have a late-night binge to distract and soothe the dissatisfaction with your day & food.
Tips for developing awareness and addressing potential underlying issues that may lead to emotional eating.
The first step is recognizing your emotional eating patterns, and the second is planning ahead.
How can you avoid turning to food in the future?
What obstacles stand in your way?
If food is your main source of comfort, what non-food related activities can you add to your day?
Stressed and Procrastinating:
Do one thing towards solving whatever's on your mind. I.e., send one email, do 5-minutes of work—even the smallest of actions help calm the anxiety.
Prepare a non-food-related reward after taking action like reading a good book or spending the evening with a friend—virtually or in person.
Only eat food at the dinner table, away from screens to disassociate the couch with food.
Develop an evening routine that lets you get in tune with your emotions rather than numb them. Being active or socializing also releases stress. I.e., an evening walk or call with a friend, nighttime yoga, journaling, or meditation.
Eat delicious and nutrient-dense satisfying meals throughout the day to keep your energy and satisfaction levels up. You have to love your food if you want to avoid overeating later on.
Focus on activities that excite and energize you. I.e., take up a new dance or gym class, meet friends, have cooking nights, and try exciting new recipes, so you don't get bored with your food.
Overall, emotional eating is something almost everyone experiences. We’re so used to turning to food whenever we’re upset or happy that we don’t even realize it. Luckily, once we notice it and add other activities that enrich our lives and manage our emotions, we naturally develop healthier eating patterns.