Emotional Eating: Most of us know what to do when it comes to losing weight and feeling hungry
By: Tricia Stefankiewicz
How many of us eat when we are upset, stressed, lonely, scared, bored, worried, or tired? We may eat for comfort or to help us get through uncomfortable situations. Eating allows us to soothe or suppress or delay any of the emotions we may feel. Eating makes us feel better in the moment but out of control and shameful in the long term.
Why is it that eating making us feel better?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. When we eat something pleasurable the brain releases dopamine which triggers a feel- good response to the food consumed. Every time you eat those foods, it triggers a dopamine reward center signaling a pleasure response.
Typical foods craved are ones that are sweet, fatty, and have a higher calorie content. The foods release dopamine and create a feel-good response. It has nothing to do will poor self-control of lack of will power but more a physiologic response to the dopamine hit we are getting from eating those trigger foods. We may only feel a bit of comfort for a few minutes after we eat the food but regret and shame may linger for much longer. But often we felt such guilt and shame for our behavior, that we eat those trigger foods, and thus the cycle begins again. This behavior is probably something that you have been doing for a while and may not be aware of your behavior. May not even be aware in the moment that you are doing it
What do we do?
Identify true hunger vs. emotional hunger!
True Hunger (Hunger Scale)
• Feel hunger pangs
• Feel cues of when full, stop eating
• No feeling of guilt
• Don’t feel hungry
• No cues to stop eating
• Feelings of guilt and shame after eating
• Mindlessly eating
• Desire to eat high fat, high sugar foods that make you feel better
• Temporary Feeling
• May be triggered by nostalgic memories, see or smell – these foods may have a deeper feeling or meaning for you
• Body doesn’t want true nutrition but more a hit of dopamine to make it feel good
Hunger and fullness scale
After years of dieting and over restricting our eating, it may be hard to identify when you are hungry and when you are feeling full. It allows you to listen more to what your body is telling you and give you confidence that you know these feelings. The hunger fullness tool allows you to become more in tune with what your body needs right now and can be used to help identify and combat emotional eating. It has a 1-10 range of hunger and fullness with number 1 showing you are starving and number 10 indicating when you are painfully full. This scale allows you to identify when to start eating by feeling hunger and when to stop eating by feeling full. The goal is start eating at a range of 3 when you are starting to experience feelings of true hungry and stomach growling and stop eating when you are uncomfortably full typically in the 7-8 range.
How do we start to identify emotional eating and what to do about it?
1. Journal any food consumed. This will allow us to differentiate between real hunger and emotional hunger. If emotional eating is happening it will allow you to identify triggers or cues associated with the behavior. Need to identify the root of the behavior or it will continue to happen, and it may be hard to maintain desired health changes over time.
2. Create a safe environment: Emotionally and physically
Emotional Environment: Includes any feeling that takes up space in your mind. Once you can identify the emotion underlying the desire to eat, you can then begin to create a non-food plan to manage the emotion. Switch the focus from food making you feel better to identifying the underlying cause of the trigger and then managing that feeling. Some examples include:
Upset: Employ strategies such as breathing, positive self-talk, self-compassion, and speaking with friends and family
Stress: Find activities that make you feel better and will alleviate any stress. This can include journaling, meditation, read books, go for a walk, do some yoga.
Lonely: Zoom or have a conversation with friends or family, journaling any feeling that come up, join an online group or something you have always wanted to do
Bored: Trying something new, connecting with friends
Tired: Using relaxation strategies like breathing, taking a bath, reading a book, lighting a candle, walk
Other strategies to manage emotional eating
o Don’t deprive yourself of the foods you want, eat them. Deprivation may cause over-eating and emotional eating.
o Let go of the shame of emotional eating as this will allow the cycle to continue repeatedly
o Employ mindfulness and self-compassion to combat any negative self-talk
o Let go of the shame and judgement and give yourself permission to feel the feeling and that’s OK. Accepting those underlying emotions will help decrease the feeling of good vs. bad food
o Create an action plan. Explore any non-food strategies that work for you instead of eating. See the list above.
Instead of relying on will power and self-control which may prove to be difficult once you feel the emotion or see the food, rely instead on changing your environment to help protect you when these feeling arise. Create a “safe” environment that is more conducive to the goals you want to pursue this year.
• Don’t buy or have things in the house that you know may trigger you to overeat when the emotional eating takes place. If you do have them in your home, keep them out of your eyesight – tuck them in a drawer or cabinet that you don’t often go into.
• Use smaller plates with meals. Often the portion size eaten is what is present on your plate. This will also allow you to see if you are truly hungry or just eating it because it’s on your plate
• Have healthier foods and snacks at eye level or more visible to you so that you are more likely to consume them vs. snacks that are hidden away out of view.
• Don’t deprive yourself of what you want. If you want something to eat that you truly enjoy, put it on a plate so that you know exactly how much you are consuming.
• Be mindful when eating and minimize distractions like eating when driving or eating in front of the TV or computer
• At restaurants – prepare ahead of time what you will eat so that you feel more in control
• Create a work environment that helps support your health goals
o Notice any temptations surrounding you like break rooms, candy bowls, or vending machines. Add healthier snacks that are less tempting for you to consume like nuts, cheese sticks, yogurt, and portion sized goodies.
Remember that these behaviors are often formed over the course of a lifetime and will likely require time to improve them. The more you practice your new behaviors the easier they will become. You are the expert on you. You know what your triggers are and what will work best to combat them. Remember why this goal is important to you and how going through the process may help you with long term healthy behavior change. Be patient. And remember, it’s progress over perfection. Each day forward doing something different that you are now is growth and improvement. You got this.
If through the course of the process, you require more support, seek out a trained and licensed counselor, therapist, or mental health provider that can dig deeper and help you through the process. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition.