A Dietitian’s Guide To Understanding Emotional Eating
January 18, 2022
Is food something you turn to in times of stress, sadness, anger, loneliness or fatigue? Finding comfort in food is normal. However, emotional eating may be something that you struggle with if you find yourself using food as a main coping strategy for difficult emotions.
In this article, we will break down the reasons why we eat for emotional reasons, how to recognise true hunger and fullness signals, and strategies to help mindful eating.
Why do we emotionally eat?
There are many reasons why we emotionally eat, ranging from negative emotions such as sadness or anger or even positive emotions such as joy or wanting to celebrate. Emotional eating can affect both men and women equally.
It’s okay to eat for emotional reasons sometimes, because it’s a normal part of the human experience. However, it can be problematic if it’s your go-to way of coping. This is because it tends to only offer temporary relief (like a band-aid) and doesn’t address the root cause of the emotion itself.
What is the food reward pathway?
Negative emotions can lead to feelings of emptiness or an emotional ‘void’. Food, especially types of foods that are high in sugar, fat and/or salt, can create a ‘reward pathway’ because they activate areas of our brain that cause us to feel pleasure through the feel-good hormone dopamine. However, this release of dopamine is short-lived and creates a false sense of feeling better until it wears off.
Other factors that lead to emotional eating
When experiencing difficult emotions, there are other factors that can increase the risk of emotional eating. These include:
- not engaging in positive coping strategies such as deep breathing, talking to friends or family, exercise or getting adequate sleep
- not understanding the difference between true hunger and emotional hunger
- having a cycle of negative self-talk – for example, ‘I’ve blown it now, I may as well keep going’
- increased levels of stress hormone cortisol which can worsen cravings
How can I tell the difference between emotional eating and hunger?
There are a few key strategies you can use to help you determine whether it’s emotional eating or true hunger.
Use the hunger and fullness scale
Ask yourself, ‘am I really physically hungry?’ The hunger and fullness scale rates your hunger levels from 1-10, with 1 being the most hungry and 10 being extremely full to the point of feeling unwell or having stomach pain.
Ideally, you want to start eating at 3/10 on the hunger scale. Aim to finish eating at around 6/10 on the hunger scale – when feeling satisfied, but before feeling physically full or uncomfortable.
1 – starvation, need to eat now
2 – slight pain in stomach, hard to concentrate, lack of energy
3 – beginning of physical signs of hunger, stomach growling sometimes
4 – could eat if it were suggested
5 – neutral
6 – satisfied
7 – stomach slightly distended, may have slight discomfort, indigestion or pain
8 – stomach feeling very distended, sleepy and drained, stomach uncomfortable
9 – definitely full, stomach uncomfortable, no energy, physically sick
Regular meals are important to prevent you from reaching ‘1’ or ‘2’ on the hunger scale. Going for more than 4 hours without eating means that you are more likely to have true hunger and increases your risk of overeating at the next meal.
If you rate yourself ‘6’ or above on the hunger scale, think about other reasons why you may want to eat. You can start with the HALT acronym – are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Getting in tune with your emotions might take some practice and self-reflection. Keeping a journal or diary can help.
Other signs of emotional hunger
While there are physical signs that can help you to distinguish true hunger from emotional hunger, there are some other cues you may want to look out for. Signs of emotional hunger include:
- a sense of urgency – emotional hunger often makes a sudden appearance and can be a craving for a very specific type of food (e.g. chocolate, cake, chips)
- eating quickly or mindlessly – you may find that you are not really tasting the food or thinking about it while eating
- you keep wanting more and not feeling satisfied, and might go between different types of food or switch between sweet and salty
- there can often be a feeling of guilt afterwards. This is because your subconscious mind recognises that you were not truly hungry and the food was a ‘bandaid fix’
How can I cope with emotions without using food?
Identifying the emotions
The first step in coping with difficult emotions is to be able to accurately identify them. Keeping a food diary or journal can be helpful to understand your emotions throughout the day. It can also help you notice patterns or times that you are more likely to emotionally eat.
Sometimes people can struggle to identify their emotions. You can try using an emotions wheel to find words for how you are feeling.
Finding coping strategies
The second step is identifying the best coping strategy that helps with the emotion. Here are some examples:
- sadness – try having a hot bath, journaling, talking to a supportive person, watching a feel-good movie or listening to music
- loneliness – reach out to a loved one or supportive person; join a community group or volunteer to make new friends
- anger – try exercising, deep breathing, meditation or listening to calming music
- stress or tiredness – consider if there’s any tasks you can take off your plate. Set aside time each week for self-care such as exercise or getting enough sleep
- joy/celebration – organise a non-food way to celebrate such as booking tickets to see a movie or a self-care night at home
The Delay, Distract and Disarm Method
There are a series of steps you can remember to help address emotional eating. This is called the Delay, Distract and Disarm method:
- Delay – when you first notice the impulse to emotionally eat (and it is not true hunger), try to wait 20 minutes before acting on the impulse.
- Distract – in the meantime, try to use a coping strategy for that specific emotion, such as deep breathing, watching a funny video or going for a quick walk.
- Disarm – adjust your food environment to be supportive of your goals. Try not to keep ‘fun foods’ such as chocolate or crisps directly in your line of sight or easy to access because this can act as a physical trigger for that food ‘reward pathway’. Keep your pantry/fridge stocked up with nutritious snacks such as fruit, yoghurt, wholegrain crackers and cheese, nut bars or lightly salted popcorn.
Tips for mindful eating
Mindful eating is an important tool that can help you reduce or stop emotional eating. Some important aspects of mindful eating include:
- tuning into your hunger and fullness cues using the hunger level scale
- minimising distractions while eating such as televisions or mobile phones
- sitting down at a table to eat
- engaging all of your senses while eating – taste, sight, smell, feel
- slow down and reduce your rate of eating
- chew your food to applesauce consistency
While emotional eating can be a normal part of the human experience, it can be problematic if it’s your primary way to cope with certain emotions. The steps towards stopping emotional eating include:
- using the hunger and fullness scale
- identifying the emotions
- choosing the right coping strategies
- and implementing mindful eating principles
Sometimes emotional eating can be difficult to overcome, but you don’t need to do it on your own. Reach out to our team of dietitians at Plant Nutrition and Wellness for support to improve your relationship with food and finally stop emotional eating.
Written by: PNW Clinic Dietitian Megan Boswell