Occasional "emotional eating" isn't a problem for most people. After all, that's what makes comfort food so appealing. But turning to food every time a person has unpleasant feelings – or even positive ones – can lead to weight gain.
Emotional eating affects most everyone from time to time, but regularly letting your feelings guide your food intake can affect your health.
Sadness, boredom, and other negative emotions can drive emotional eating. Emotional eating includes polishing off a container of ice cream after a romantic breakup or devouring a bag of potato chips when you're home alone on a Saturday night. But happy events can lead to it, too.
Stress can influence eating behaviors. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 38 percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress, and half of these adults say they do this weekly or more often.
Warning Signs Of Emotional Eating
- Cravings coming on suddenly
- Cravings of junk food
- Cravings accompanied by negative emotions (sadness, anger, boredom, etc.)
- Feeling guilty after giving in to cravings
- Gaining weight and not realizing why
In the long term, people who overeat have higher risks of serious medical issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, not to mention the psychological drawbacks.
More serious conditions can be linked to emotional eating. One is binge eating disorder, characterized by eating dramatically large amounts of food well after you reach the point of fullness.
Eating more food than your body needs can have dangerous consequences. People who eat for emotional reasons often gain too much weight. This puts them at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cancer. Excessive eating has emotional consequences as well. These include feeling guilty or embarrassed afterward.
Strategies to Deal with Emotional Eating
Here are steps you can take to stop emotional eating episodes and break the cycle:
- Learn to recognize hunger. Next time you reach for a snack, ask yourself what's driving it. If you are truly hungry, you'll notice physical symptoms, such as a growling stomach. Other, less obvious hunger cues include irritability and difficulty concentrating. If those signs are absent, you probably don't need to eat right then.
- Keep a journal. Take the time to create a "mood and food" journal. Write down what you eat each day, along with the emotions you were experiencing at the time and whether you were truly hungry. You may find that specific feelings, such anger or sadness, lead to your overeating. Once you recognize these triggers, you can learn healthier ways to deal with them. For example, if you experience stress, instead of trying to relieve it with a candy bar, take a walk around the block.
- Add healthier choices into your lifestyle. Make time for exercise, relaxation and social time with friends or loved ones. Get enough sleep; lack of sleep can trigger cravings for more food to help boost your energy.
- Build a support network. Surrounding yourself with friends and family who support your efforts to change your eating habits can improve your chances of success. It may also be helpful to join a support group through which you will meet other people with similar problems and learn better ways of coping.
- Focus on the future when craving hits. A 2014 study by the University of Delaware suggests that people who focus on wanting to be healthier for the future make healthier food choices than people who simply want to satisfy an immediate craving. A craving lasts no more than three to five minutes. Try to watch the clock and wait it out, the cravings should go away after this time period.
- Cultivate other interests. Finding an activity that you enjoy can increase self-confidence, which is often poor in emotional eaters. Examples of these activities are yoga, playing a musical instrument, or painting. If you find that your eating is driven by boredom, a new passion can fill your hours and make you less likely to look to food for emotional satisfaction.
- Learn from your setbacks and move on. Don't beat yourself up when you give in to a craving. Focusing on the negative and trying to be perfect all the time will only cause more setbacks. Learn from it, and resolve to start fresh the next day.
- Get help if necessary. If you can't control emotional eating on your own, consider getting professional help to change your behavior. A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you to change your eating habits and deal with unpleasant emotions in a better way. Medicine, including antidepressants and appetite suppressants, may also help. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn about more treatment choices.
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