When you’re happy, your food of choice could be steak or pizza, when you’re sad it could be ice cream or cookies, and when you’re bored it could be potato chips. Food does more than fill our stomachs — it also satisfies feelings, and when you quench those feelings with comfort food when your stomach isn’t growling, that’s emotional eating.
Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.
Many of us learn that food can bring comfort, at least in the short-term. As a result, we often turn to food to heal emotional problems. Eating becomes a habit preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress.
How to Tell the Difference
There are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger, according to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center web site:
1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you’re open to options.
3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.
4. Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.
5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.
Not many of us make the connection between eating and our feelings. But understanding what drives emotional eating can help people take steps to change it.
One of the biggest myths about emotional eating is that it’s prompted by negative feelings. Yes, people often turn to food when they’re stressed out, lonely, sad, anxious, or bored. But emotional eating can be linked to positive feelings too, like the romance of sharing dessert on Valentine’s Day or the celebration of a holiday feast.
Sometimes emotional eating is tied to major life events, like a death or a divorce. More often, though, it’s the countless little daily stresses that cause someone to seek comfort or distraction in food.
By identifying what triggers our emotional eating, we can substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation.
Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories.
- . Eating when around other people. For example, excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat; eating to fit in; arguing; or feelings of inadequacy around other people.
- . Eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety, or loneliness as a way to “fill the void.”
- . Eating because the opportunity is there. For example, at a restaurant, seeing an advertisement for a particular food, passing by a bakery. Eating may also be associated with certain activities such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, etc.
- . Eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating. For example, scolding oneself for looks or a lack of will power.
- . Eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.