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Emotional Eating: Identification and Treatment

written by Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse Written by Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

Read more posts by this author.
reviewed by Linda Anegawa, MD, FACP Reviewed by Linda Anegawa, MD, FACP
Linda Anegawa, MD, FACP

Linda Anegawa, MD, FACP

Dr. Anegawa graduated from the Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and completed residency at Stanford. She has over 20 years of practice experience and specializes in Internal Medicine and Obesity Medicine.

January 20, 2022 Read Time - 7 minutes

What Is Emotional Eating?

Have you ever eaten an entire bag of chips after a breakup, or snacked on sweets while studying for an exam? Emotional eating means using food as a tool to ease difficult or negative emotions, causing someone to eat for comfort rather than for satisfying physical hunger.

Emotional eating can occur on a continuum or spectrum. On one end, some people may restrict their food in order to control or suppress emotions, while on the other end, others may overeat to do the same. This can happen even if we are not completely aware of the behavior.

Continue reading to find out more about emotional eating, including its signs, causes, and potential treatment options.

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What Are the Signs of Emotional Hunger?

Signs of emotional eating may include certain behaviors, thoughts, and emotional states during eating. Emotional hunger can be identified with certain eating behaviors that may indicate emotional eating. 

Signs of emotional hunger may include:

  • Feeling discomfort or guilt after you overeat.
  • Being unable to control your eating urges or cravings.
  • Eating when you are not physically hungry.
  • Eating your food too quickly, without chewing well.
  • Having an inconsistent or irregular eating pattern on a daily basis.
  • Continuing to eat, despite being physically full.
  • Having obsessive thoughts about what you eat, how much you eat, and what not to eat.
  • Being unable to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger.
  • Feeling self-conscious about your weight or appearance, which leads to feelings of disappointment.

What Causes Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is typically caused by emotional challenges or psychological disturbances. People who engage in emotional eating are often unaware of the internal sensation of hunger, and may not be able to tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.

Eating activates areas in the brain that triggers a relaxation response (rest and digest response). Although eating is a temporary relief from emotional pain or distress, it makes the problem worse over time, if not addressed. So while it may initially feel soothing to emotionally eat, there usually comes a point when eating does not feel good anymore.

Why Do Emotional Eaters Overeat?

Emotional eaters often overeat due to a lack of understanding regarding emotional recognition, introspection, and physical hunger cues.  These patterns can get set up in the brain at a very early age if, for example, one was frequently rewarded with sweets in response to negative feelings or events.  The brain develops connections between feelings of discomfort and learning to seek food as a response to ease the discomfort.

Emotional eaters will often feel negative emotions before, during, and after eating. These thoughts can manifest themselves as anger, disgust, shame, sadness, distraction, boredom, annoyance, depression, loneliness, stress, and remorse. Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, and shame, potentially due to not eating for nutritional reasons. 

Emotional eating may come with rules that are often rigid and irrational. Some experts say it may be associated with a “feast or famine” mentality. For example, one week you could be restricting your diet, while the next week you could start overeating.

If you find yourself questioning whether or not you are emotionally hungry or physically hungry, think of the healthiest snack you can think of, and then ask yourself, would I eat that now?

  • If the answer is no, then you are most likely about to emotionally eat.
  • If the answer is yes, you are likely physically hungry.
  • Physical hunger comes on gradually, makes you open to eating any type of food, doesn’t make you feel guilty, and allows you to stop when you feel full.

Do I Have Emotional Eating?

You may be experiencing emotional eating if you:

  • Feel guilty after consuming a meal or snack 
  • Have negative feelings about food or eating 
  • Binge-eat on food with difficulty stopping what you are doing
  • Feel shame or guilt around food

Emotional hunger also comes on suddenly, often disguised as cravings, while negating the feeling of satisfied fullness, no matter how much food you consume.

When you don’t pay attention to your emotions and eat instead, you may create a vicious cycle of eating to ignore your feelings, followed by negative emotions, which then trigger emotional eating, followed by more negative emotions. The toxic circle continues until you can break the cycle of emotional eating and identify the root cause.

How Can I Stop Eating Emotionally?

You can begin to stop emotional eating by identifying the cause. Emotional hunger is not satisfied with food. First, be aware of the different types of negative emotions that could be triggering your emotional eating.

  • Negative emotions can be feelings of sadness, fear, anger, boredom, annoyance, disgust, pensiveness, grief, and distraction. 
  • All of these emotions may trigger emotional eating.  
  • You have to ask yourself: am I physically hungry or seeking comfort from an uncomfortable emotion?

Questions to ask yourself about emotional eating include:

  • Will this piece of food fix my emotion?
  • Why am I eating this food?
  • Am I in a good headspace to eat this food?
  • Do I need to take a moment and sit with this emotion before I eat?

Write down your emotions before, during, and after your meals. You will begin to identify when you are emotionally eating, and when you are eating for nutrition. Other coping mechanisms can be used instead of food to deal with difficult emotions. Practice introspection by listening to your body’s natural hunger and fullness signals.

What Can I Use to Cope With Instead of Food?

Many techniques are available to help emotional eaters cope without the use of food. Keep a food journal and write down what you eat, when you eat, and the emotion attached to each eating session. You can use this information to identify patterns and practice your emotional intelligence. Rate your hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being full and 1 being starving: 

  1. Starving, weak, dizzy
  2. Very hungry, cranky, low energy, lots of stomach growling
  3. Pretty hungry, with stomach growling a little
  4. Starting to feel a little hungry
  5. Satisfied, neither hungry nor full
  6. A little full, pleasantly full
  7. A little uncomfortable
  8. Feeling stuffed
  9. Very uncomfortable, stomach hurts
  10. So full you feel sick

If your hunger level is a 6 or higher, stop and check your emotions.

Emotional Eating Treatment

Emotional eating may be treated with therapy. Therapy can help you discover your emotional eating patterns, understand the causes of emotional eating, and learn healthy coping skills. Therapists can help guide you to “feel your feelings,” which is more effective than “feeding your feelings.”

Therapy is also critical to help prevent emotional eating from developing into a full-blown eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder, night eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa in which emotional overeating is followed by purging.

It is important to be patient with yourself and give yourself grace. Emotional eating does not develop overnight, and it can’t necessarily be fixed overnight either. But step by step, it is possible to loosen the associations between food and emotions and feel better about your relationship with your eating.

Emotional eating treatment can also include prescription medications. Research has identified that certain classes of medication help curb binge eating and reduce the number of overeating episodes. Common medications used to treat emotional eating include Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and Vyvanse. Like with most mental health treatment options, it is best to combine therapy with medication to get the best outcomes.

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Read More: Wellbutrin for Weight Loss


Talk to a Doctor or Therapist About Emotional Eating

If you struggle with emotional eating or think you may be an emotional eater, make an appointment today to speak with a PlushCare doctor or therapist

If you qualify, doctors can prescribe medications that can decrease your feelings of hunger, giving you enough time to stop and think about why you are eating, and which emotions are attached. PlushCare offers therapy that may be able to help with the psychological side of overeating. 

Book an appointment to talk to a PlushCare physician today about your emotional eating and ways to get relief.


Read More About Emotional Eating


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

University of Michigan Health. Emotional Eating. Accessed on January 12, 2022 at https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/aa145852 

Reichenberger, J., Schnepper, R., Arend, A. K., & Blechert, J. (2020). Emotional eating in healthy individuals and patients with an eating disorder: evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic studies. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 79(3), 290–299. Accessed on January 12, 2022 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7663318/ 

Van Strien T. (2018). Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity. Current Diabetes Reports, 18(6), 35. Accessed on January 12, 2022 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5918520/

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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