Updated 06/05/2022

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I find myself in the kitchen, over and over again, even though I know I’m not hungry. I just never feel satisfied, and I can’t seem to stop myself from heading for the cupboards. Help!”

That’s what Lisa said to me the other day at her follow up appointment. Lisa came to me about her desire to lose weight several months ago, and from the beginning she’s had some great successes and some major setbacks. Not quite ready to dive into my full program, we started with some baby steps. And she did great..until she didn’t. Then she’d find herself in a place like this.

When that happened, she spent so much time berating herself for the choices she made.”If only I had some willpower, I could finally lose this weight” she’d tell me. 

But I know better. I know the things that LIsa is dealing with in her life, and it’s some heavy responsibility: aging parents, struggling teenagers, and a husband with substance use issues. It’s no wonder her emotions took over her brain sometimes! And that doesn’t even touch on the childhood trauma she experienced – which is when she learned to make herself feel better with food in the first place.

I’ve been there myself. I struggled with my weight, but I couldn’t seem to stop making poor food choices. It wasn’t until I took a look at the emotional trauma in my past and present and realized that my choices were a result of these emotional burdens, not poor willpower, that I was able to look at food differently.

I realized that the temporary relief didn’t last, and food wasn’t a coping mechanism but rather an essential component to living a healthy life. Only then I could make the necessary changes that allowed me to not only shed those stubborn pounds, but feel better than I ever have.

I think we all know consciously that food is fuel, and the primary purpose of eating is to give our body the energy it needs to survive. But in our culture, food is so much more than that; we eat to celebrate, we eat to block out pain or grief, we eat when we’re bored or angry. We reward ourselves for accomplishments with sweet treats – even when the accomplishment is giving up sugar for a month! Does that make any sense at all?

Just like with Lisa, I have seen this cycle of emotional eating in women struggling with weight loss time and time again. Why is it so easy to slide right back into bad nutrition choices when we’ve worked so hard to make good ones? 

Well, most often, it’s because the emotional issues lurking under the surface – the ones that prompt us to make unhealthy choices in the first place – haven’t gone anywhere. We stuff them down, push them back, ignore them for as long as we can – and then fall right back into the same old emotional trap.

What is emotional eating?

If you eat when you aren’t physically hungry, it’s likely connected to emotions – good or bad. Women tend to think of negative emotions when they think of emotional eating. We use food to self soothe, to feel better in painful situations, to bury anger, frustration or hurt.

We use food as a distraction when there’s something we don’t know how to deal with. We turn to convenience foods when faced with the stress of everyday life, grabbing whatever is handy without giving it a thought.

But emotional eating can also be a result Think about it – how many happy occasions include special food and beverages? When you get a promotion, you might go out for dinner and drinks with colleagues. A birthday celebration doesn’t seem complete without cake and ice cream. Children are rewarded with treats for good behavior.

We’ve been using food in these ways for so long that our bodies are trained to respond with cravings when faced with these emotional triggers. And that can lead to a cycle that’s incredibly difficult to break.

Are you on a constant roller coaster ride?

Some people are roller coaster junkies. They crave the high that comes as they rush down a steep incline, or loop de loop upside down and around turns at high speeds. But those feelings don’t last long once the ride is over, so they want to ride again and again.

The same kind of thing happens with emotional eating. Although the food may temporarily stifle difficult feelings, if you’re not addressing them they’ll return, prompting you to seek comfort in food over and over again. Even good feelings perpetuate this cycle when the reward is food.

Unfortunately, the high that results when you engage in emotional eating doesn’t last long, and the guilt that lingers afterwards can send you right back to the kitchen for more comfort. These cravings are driven by chemical reactions in your body – and sometimes no amount of desire or “willpower” is strong enough to fight off these reactions.

Is it any wonder, then, that weight loss is so hard?

Physiological reactions that prompt emotional eating

It may seem like emotional eating is “all in your head,” triggered only by psychological factors. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Your body is full of hormones and chemicals that send signals – including hunger signals. When hormones are imbalanced, the messages being relayed can get jumbled. Your brain could be sending an urgent call for food, even if you aren’t really hungry.

I’ve talked a lot about chronic stress and cortisol in prior newsletters. Chronically high levels of cortisol can have a major impact on other hormones, including those that drive hunger signals. Leptin, in particular, can cause big problems when trying to lose weight if your brain doesn’t receive the message to stop eating.

If you’re dealing with leptin resistance, your body doesn’t respond properly to leptin, even when there’s plenty circulating. That could make emotional eating even harder to control, since your body is sending the message that you really are hungry. One study showed that high stress markers and high leptin levels were connected to high reports of emotional eating.

Research has demonstrated a complex and reciprocal relationship between mood, food, and obesity. Stress reduces the amount of serotonin, a chemical directly connected to mood. High sugar/high carbohydrate foods boost chemicals that call for the release of more serotonin, which in turn makes you feel better temporarily.

Your body learns that certain foods make you feel good, so you end up constantly craving these unhealthy choices. It’s the same chemical cycle that causes addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

Clearly, then, curbing emotional eating is more complicated than simply telling yourself to stop. It will be difficult, and it will take a lot of hard work and commitment. But it can be done.

10 Tips to Help You Stop Emotional Eating

The first step is to acknowledge that you are eating for all the wrong reasons. But the real question is: What can I do about it? Avoiding unhealthy choices is easier said than done. Often, the help of a professional therapist or more formal program is necessary. But these ten tips to stop emotional eating can get you started.

1. Don’t rely on food for rewards or celebrations

Food represents so much more than nourishment in our society: love, acceptance, accomplishment, and so much more. Often, we celebrate with food just because that’s what we’ve always done. If you grew up getting a special treat every time something good happened, it’s no wonder you turn to food even when you’re feeling great. But there are far healthier ways to reward yourself for a job well done.

When you finish a big project, have an amazing parenting moment, or land a big client, try finding a non-food reward you’ll enjoy just as much – or even more! Take a nap, spend an hour doing whatever you want online, watch a favorite movie, call a friend to tell them all about your success. Savor the actual achievement, not the sweet treat that follows!

2. Write everything down

A food diary is a wonderful way to track not only what you’re putting in your body, but when and why. If you are methodically tracking what, how much, and when you are eating, as well as how you feel when you go in search of food and whether you have physical signs of hunger before you eat, you can really begin to see patterns emerge.

Get as detailed as you can. Instead of writing apple, 7 am, feeling fine, record it like this: small apple, 7 am – one hour after waking up; stomach grumbling, mood happy and ready to tackle the day.

It’s also helpful to record how you feel after you eat. Did the apple satisfy your physical hunger? Did you stop eating, or did you immediately feel like you wanted something else? These questions can help identify which foods satisfy you (and how long you stay satisfied) and which might be a balm for sadness, anger, or other strong emotions.

3. Reduce stress

Stress reduction is truly one of the most important pieces of the overall health puzzle – and has a big impact on emotional eating. When you find yourself stressed, anxious, and reaching for a bag of chips or a box of cookies, take a few minutes to breathe deeply, walk around the block, or do a few yoga poses. That might just be what it takes for the impulse to pass.

Long term stress management is essential as well, so it’s critical that you find healthy techniques to add to your daily routine. Whatever you choose, it shouldn’t make your life feel more crazy – find something you can immerse yourself in, that allows you to fully enjoy the moment and leaves you feeling energized and alive.

4. Assess hunger level and choose snacks wisely

Since emotional eating isn’t about hunger at all, taking a moment to ask yourself what’s really going on can sometimes be enough. Are you bored? Find something stimulating to do. Sad? Call a friend, or dance to an upbeat tune.

If it’s been a few hours since you had something to eat, and your stomach is grumbling, then you might actually need food. And once you’ve established that, you can make healthy choices about what to eat – an apple with almond butter will satisfy true hunger much better than a piece of cake!

5. Reach out to others

If you’re trying to manage difficult emotions on your own, you may well give in to emotional eating. Call a trusted friend, join a support group, or work with a therapist to help you process the feelings. There are some great programs and techniques available to help you get to the root of your emotional trauma, including EFT and The Hoffman Process. I highly recommend both when you are ready to dig in and really find out what’s going on.

6. Don’t beat yourself up for slipping

Remember that cycle I talked about? You can break it when you give yourself permission to learn from setbacks and keep on trying. Every moment is a new opportunity to begin again. So if you ate doughnuts instead of a healthy breakfast, you don’t have to spend the rest of the day making poor choices. Forgive yourself, make a plan for the rest of the day, and move on. And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back when you make healthy choices!

7. Avoid temptation

It’s far too easy to console yourself with food when your cupboards and refrigerator are full of ice cream, cookies, chips, and other comfort foods. Know your weaknesses and don’t keep them in your house! It’s best to avoid the grocery store until you are in the right frame of mind (and not physically hungry).

8. Eat mindfully

Have you ever reached for a bag of chips when you were feeling down, and suddenly found yourself at the bottom of the bag without even remembering eating them? This kind of unconscious eating leads to consuming far more calories than you know – which can stop weight loss in its tracks!

Sit at a table to eat, and pay attention to every bite you take. What are you feeling? How does it taste? Do you want more, or is one bite enough? When you’re really aware of what you’re eating, you are likely to not only eat less, but enjoy it a lot more!

Pay close attention to the choices you are making, too. If you force yourself to eat the same things over and over, deprive yourself of all treats, or limit calories too severely, you could actually be increasing those cravings. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing!

9. Embrace your emotions – ALL of them!

This is probably the hardest thing to learn. It’s tempting to shove what we perceive as negative emotions aside. But here’s the thing: all emotions serve a purpose. Our emotions aren’t bad or good. Whatever we feel is what we feel, and these feelings are a message. We need to listen to them, no matter how uncomfortable that might be, to be our best selves.

We need to confront them, and dispute them if the message is untrue (no one will ever love you; you are worthless; you are ugly; you are a horrible mother, friend, daughter, wife…and any number of other horrible things women tell themselves). It’s amazing when you allow yourself to feel and understand your emotions – and gain the emotional freedom and personal power that results from this understanding.

10. Get plenty of sleep

When you are tired, it’s tough to make great choices. Sleep deprivation has a big impact on your hormones including increasing ghrelin (which tells you when you’re hungry) and decreasing leptin (which lets you know you are full). That means that you’re getting signals in two directions that it’s time to eat – whether you are actually hungry or not!

Leave the ups and downs of emotional eating behind

Comfort foods and the highs they bring just aren’t worth the accompanying lows. Lisa knew that – that’s why she came to me for help. 

When she took the time to discover the emotions behind her eating with the help of a great therapist, things shifted significantly. She jumped into my weight loss program and found herself able to stay on track. That doesn’t mean she never had setbacks, but she no longer shamed herself over them, but learned from them. And that’s the only way to change those destructive patterns!

It isn’t easy to stop emotional eating, but the way you feel when you leave the cycle of guilt and shame behind is worth it! Be patient and kind with yourself – the change won’t happen overnight. Small steps forward are better than no steps at all. And eventually, those small steps lead to big rewards!

Considering seeing someone to find out what your neurotransmitter levels are? Visit IFM.org.