Are you an Emotional Eater?

High-calorie food often represents warm, loving, comforting memories. Hunger is a deep, ancient reflex and powerful fear because it was such a norm in human history. Emotional eating—which most of us do from time to time—combines all these things.


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What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is eating to deal with emotions, especially difficult ones, such as disappointment, boredom, loneliness, sorrow and grief. Sometimes we eat to deal with positive emotions, such as happiness, pleasure, and joy. Most of us are unhappy about what emotional eating does to our bodies and our self-esteem.
(Emotional eating is not mindless eating. Mindless eating is unemotional overeating. When we eat mindlessly, we will usually eat whatever is there, just because it’s there. The carrot sticks on your desk will often do just as well as the cookies in the coffee area. To learn more about mindful eating, click here.)

Are you an Emotional Eater?

Why Do We Eat Emotionally?

There are four major causes of emotional eating.

  1. Evolution. When we eat emotionally, we almost always eat foods high in refined carbs, sugars and fats. These energy-dense foods have traditionally been rare in the human diet, and we crave them because they are energy our body can either use or store.
  2. Neurobiology. The brain uses carbohydrates (including sugars) and fats to make endorphins and serotonin. These neurotransmitters make us feel calm, contented, and happy. We often eat emotionally to make ourselves feel good.
  3. Habituation. All sugars, from agave nectar to high fructose corn syrup, bind to the dopamine and opioid receptors in our brains. The more we eat, the more it takes to satisfy us.
  4. Socialization. From childhood, food is a comfort and reward. ( Even more than boys, girls are encouraged to eat rather than express emotions, especially “unfeminine” emotions. Often, these emotions are completely appropriate to the situation—but expressing them can be risky, even dangerous.

Finally, there is the modern diet. Most processed food is carefully optimized with salt, sugar and fat so you can’t help but eat all of it, no matter what you actually enjoy and want. Food marketing is designed to convince you to eat a lot, all the time. Combine those powerful causes of emotional eating with the modern diet and food marketing and…

Emotional Eating Makes You Normal!

If you’re struggling with emotional eating, you’re normal—even though it is harmful. Virtually everyone eats emotionally from time to time, and 69% of Americans 20 years or older are overweight or obese. These numbers cannot possibly be the failure of our individual will or self-respect or self-control.

  • Many of us eat to cope with workplace stress. For the past several decades, salaries and benefits have not kept pace with the cost of living, while the social safety net was shredded. That stress causes cortisol production, which increases our desire for sweet and fatty foods. Emotional eating is a way to cope with workplace pressures and the fear of being unable to provide for our families and ourselves. (Yes, this is irrational. Most of us are irrational when we are in pain or afraid!)
  • That bowl of ice cream, bag of cookies, or bottle of wine, that slab of pizza can seem best thing we come home to.
  • Current relationship issues and past trauma are known to correlate with eating disorders, including binge eating disorder.

What are You Really Hungry For?

Emotional eating is the reason so many sensible attempts at reasonable weight loss fail. Unless you understand why you’re eating, changing your eating habits to eat only for pleasurable and companionable nutrition can be hard. The first step in controlling your emotional eating is to ask: What am I really hungry for? What emotions am I trying to eat? And why am I trying to eat them? Asking these questions and answering them honestly can be a long process that is sometimes painful. It can also be very freeing, even enriching.

Practical Steps

Here are some ways to gain control over your emotional eating.

  1. Keep a journal to help you understand why you’re eating.
  2. Remove trigger foods from the house and replace them with nourishing foods you enjoy. Alternatively, keep small, reasonable amounts of your trigger foods in the house. (Different approaches work for different people.)
  3. Replace eating with something else you enjoy a lot: reading, knitting, sex, yakking with friends, gardening, walking.
  4. Take practical steps to get what you’re really hungry for.
  5. Do one of the following things to quickly reduce cortisol, your stress hormone:
    1. Drink a cup of black tea.
    2. Massage your feet: take off your shoes and roll your feet over tennis balls.
    3. Close your eyes and, staring at the blackness, inhale and exhale slowly 10 times.
  6. Exercise to burn off the cortisol produced by stress. Find a way you enjoy moving, and then move in that way until you are quite blissfully tired.
  7. Allow yourself to feel even difficult emotions: yoga and meditation are excellent for this.
  8. If you are dealing with a very painful or complicated situation or set of emotions, you may need to seek professional help.

The most important thing? If you find yourself giving into the emotional need to eat, take just a few seconds to calm yourself, perhaps with the breathing exercise mentioned above, perhaps with a cup of tea. Then eat, taking time to enjoy every bite. When you stop enjoying, try to stop eating. If you can’t, it’s OK. You didn’t develop this habit overnight and you won’t break it overnight. Tomorrow is a fresh start.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to get support from—and give it to—other people dealing with the same issue. The Trim Down Club provides a very safe, supportive environment for people to deal with emotional eating.

Click here to learn more about the Trim Down Club.


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Comments 35

  1. I seem to really struggle with late evening eating have done this since teenage years. I am excited about this club to learn about eating smaller meals hoping to keep me satisfied all day and through out the evening.

  2. I’ve been an emotional eater all my adult life and know those habits started as a young girl. The moment anything stressful happens I reach for sugar and carbs. Popcorn and dougnuts being the drug of choice. I see them as reward, a gift if you like.
    They are of course quite the opposite of that. As I sit and type I can feel the need to change and reward myself with other sensory treats. A long bath, meditation or some gentle Yoga. Ive just done the low cardio workout and feel great – not massive but a start. I need to make friends with this new regime.

  3. Am not sure if I am a mindless eater or the emotional eater. All I know is I come home from work and start eating. I work at a retail store so sweets are readily available. I crave sweets all the time, am a diabetic, which makes it worse, and have an awful time trying to stop my cravings. Still working on clearing out my cupboards but when I crave something, I just pick it up before I leave work. Working on the will or won’t power of my food addiction. So glad I found this program and hope it works for me. So far I have lost 3.5 lbs.!

  4. I had never thought that emotional eating was normal, I always thought it was a weakness and wrong so I feel hugely relieved that in fact I am normal along with a lot of other people, I joined two weeks ago and I have not mentioned this to anyone else because I don’t want to be led astray by well-meaning people who don’t like change, I am slowly becoming familiar with the website, there is a lot to take in and I love my little secret, I feel that I am finally on the way to real and long lasting health.

  5. Lost mom Oct, Lost my hubby two weeks ago, retired too early do to heart attack, Sugar swings
    Stress, Emotional Eating ………….. do you think ? Glad I found TDC today. I’m in hopes of many new changes to come,

  6. Hi I am new and this is my first week here so far I have taken small steps like joining here and realizing when I am overeating. for me it is when I am bored and stressed. 🙁 living why out in the country where we have no gym it is a hard to find ways to stay physically active and motivated and that’s why I am here 🙂 and this time I am here for me and not for anyone else 🙂

  7. This is so me I have been struggling every since I was 16 there is nothing I don’t know about eating healthy I married my BFF 5 yrs ago he suddenly passed away Nov 2013 it in some ways my life need with him. I have only 2 friends where I live all my family is far away. After watching the video I know now it’s my time to change my health & life I have two awesome adult kids who need me to be health and I deserve to focus on me now.

  8. Hi, I am new to TDC, this is my first week. This article is me to a tee! From childhood I have had to eat through my emotions, and obviously I still am. I thought I had put my childhood to rest????? However, I am also existing in an empty 40 year marriage and I know that this is certainly a contributing factor. It is time for me to put me first and take care of myself. I have taken small steps to start the process: Starting TDC and joining a gym. This is about me and no one else.

  9. Well, I can relate to many struggles already stated. I eat when emotions and stress are high. It also occurred to me that I eat when I am avoiding things that I don’t want to deal with, so today I am attempting to tackle some issues that I have put off for a long while. #1 Get back on this website and “Trim Down”. I have recently dealt with some very difficult family members who have managed to rip my heart out and stomp all over it. This is not the first time they have done it, but this will be the last time. This time I realized that much of my emotional eating has been over their constant criticism. So I’m using this program to start a new way of thinking, to get my own power back and feel better about myself. Cheers to all who keep fighting the good fight!

  10. Hi, Willbe, and welcome. I am sorry to read of your loss, but glad you found us. As you can see from the responses here and in the Community forums, there are many people in a similar situation, and we are here to help in whatever way we can.
    If you haven’t already, all of you are welcome to enter the Groups area (link above) and get hooked up with other Clubmembers who can provide support.

  11. I can’t even put a photo anywhere online as I have fallen so far down
    the emotional eating ” black hole”
    This is my story for 50years, I have for short periods of time lost weight only to regain it with more.
    My partner of41 years died in March after a five year struggle with cancer. I ate my way through the whole five years. This is now my time to try once more to control my eating with your help. I started this morning with peace of mind that I’m actually doing doe thing positive, one male at a time. Thank you.

  12. Popcorn works wonders for my stress levels. Since being a child I can eat easily 7 ears of corn and have tomatoes and corn for dinner. I can eat a big tub of popcorn at the movies by myself easily. This is tough when trying to lose weight. I started a week ago and only lasted four days because the social eating began. Now this weekend I have a shower to attend. Okay I will just start over again.

  13. I just signed up today. I am so glad that I saw this article because it is me everyday of the week. I really would like to get rid of all the “life” weight and then work on my actual body weight. I feel motivated and energized just by reading this article.

  14. I am a emotional eater as well, especially if I’m bored or mad. I am getting so many good tips and information. I really like this site. It is really encourging me to do the right thing and eat healthy. I fill so much better when I do eat healthy and I just cant understand why I keep going back to unhealthy food. I think It’s a habit that needs to be broken., Still trying.

  15. I was so happy to read this article and to realise I’m not the odd one out with emotional eating, particularly at 3pm in the afternoons. Just knowing that this is a problem many face has made me feel stronger and a commitment to beat this unfortunate habit. I joined the Trimdown Club some time ago and have not participated at all since, using the excuse of work and family commitments. It’s been a slow process but I now realise if I don’t look after myself no one else will. I also read an article of thinking of your internal organs as being your employees and giving them the encouragement and best conditions so they can work best for the ‘business’ of ‘you’.

  16. I will need to get back to self discipline, engage in this forum and website tools, and the most difficult challenge is my current job. I am working on disconnecting, and have anticipated a job change per Dr’s advice. Yes I am an emotional eater and have been all my life- now it is up to me to do slow and deliberate .

  17. I just lost my husband of 43 years last April, I was on a pill diet for a year and during fine started eating less and choesing the right food and lost 40 pounds. Then everything went south, the old habits came back and I can’t seem to get full the weight is coming back and I can’t seem to stop eating even when I am not hungry. I am stress out about this, I think I am an emotional eater, and lately I fine myself eating more sweet and that a new one for me. Reading this has been an eye opening for me. I can see that I need help and I hope that I am on the right track for getting it.

  18. Day two and ate an organic apple at work during the 2 p.m. Cookie snack time. I felt such a strong gravitational pull towards those home made chocolate chip cookies that are passed around for residents. Guess I need to wear blinders! Maybe I need to bring a visualization card in to view during this time focusing on healthy positive outcomes when the stress gets to high. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Wish I could leave the floor at this time but have to stick it through for another hour.

  19. Reading thru the commemts before I posted my message gave me the desire to post my own message. I signed up with TDC some time ago but am embarressed to say I have never really used it . Pressured with high stress home life and work, I just never seemed to have the time or energy to go to work for myself. I recently learned I am a diabetic and already have nerve damage in my feet and legs. This is something I must do to make a change in my life and in my eating habits. I am committing to do this no matter what!

  20. goes. Nothing ventured nothing gained! I have been an emotional eater for years. I now want to turn that habit into something positive by doing something else (like srapbooking a page instead whenever I encounter those moments when I reached for food to ease the uncomfortable emotion). I know I can do this!

  21. I think this is one of my biggest downfalls, emotional, mindless eating in the evening. I’m pretty sure it’s stress and it’s going to be interesting to see if changing jobs is going to alleviate my compulsion to eat at night, even when I’m not hungry. I was on Weight Watchers and lost 50 lbs. but I quit tracking my food and gained back about 12 lbs in the last year. I just joined TDC and am hoping to find a solution to my binge eating. For some reason, I seem to want to sabotage myself.

  22. I had already started the plan by the time I read this article and like everyone else I am so guilty of the emotional eating. I just try to prepare now. I don’t skip meals even when I am not hungry and I tell the mind to shut up when it tries to tell me the processed crap is fine in moderation. It’s not fine for me and IT’S ALL ABOUT ME. I feel better. My energy level is up and pain level is down. I sleep better at night, so I’m not up picking on no no’s and I’m up before the alarm goes off. I look at this program as a very helpful aide and will not get into the, “this is too much work, I dont’t have time, why don’t I see a difference in 2 weeks.” This is a life change for me. Fast food and proccessed food is a conveinence, but I want to enjoy my life. I want to control my life. I am worth the work. May not thought so before, but I am. IT’S ALL ABOUT ME and I make the time for ME by learning from this program what I can grab when I’m mad, sad, happy, tired, horny, rushed, fustrated and just plain satisfied. I feel I’m on the right track. Now I’m going to go have have “Lemon Cottage Cheese Muffins,” I prepared for MYSELF last night. I feel HAPPY (smile).

  23. I am an emotional eater. I am most vulnerable at transition times during the day. I am brand new to the club, but I’m thinking that if I can plan my snacks at those times it might help. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  24. This is me when I get home from work…nothing prepared so I grab whatever is handy to eat and drink…don’t know why I am so hungry when I arrive home from work. I usually had a large meal for lunch. I will have to ready some healthy snacks to eat at 430 in the afternoon as we usually don’t eat supper until 630 or later.

  25. This is totally me 🙁 in the 3:00 hour I will just grace like a cow , one thing to the next thing until I find something that will make me happy and unfortunately I don’t usually get to that point I just usually get so full I feel sick. This is a very very terrible habit and I don’t know how to control it :(.

  26. I agree I have only been on this site for a few days but reading through the articles and comments from other people , I see a lot of my own sayings and coping stratagies when stressed, tired,or unhappy. I am trying to get in the mind set that its not so much a diet but a better and healthier way of living. I too have food in my cupboards and will be using that up gradually introducing the healthier options over time. I have started by eating smaller portions and thinking about what I am eating taking it slow when I have a meal or snack, it is true I do feel fuller I am also starting to feel better and more positive about myself. Some of the healthier foods recommended are more expensive and more difficult to find but, I will keep looking and hopfully learning as I go changing my life for the better .
    good luck to all 🙂

  27. This really helps me because I’ve been guilty of all the above. However, I’ve been slowly getting my head round my new TrimDown Club eating plan and although off to a very slow start, I wanted to use up the supply of banned foods by baking and making meals for my husband and son before I replenished the cupboards. I wanted to have a fresh start for all of us and although I had to suffer some negative comments like: ‘another diet?? and how long is this one going to last?’ I quietly and calmly started experimenting with some of the recipes which I had decided to print out and file into 5 folders (I printed everything! just in case my computer conked and I wasn’t able to link up) So the sounds of ‘uhmmm….this is nice love, is it from your diet plan?’ was a great encouragement to me. I didn’t notice any dramatic weight loss, but after 3 weeks I have comfortably dropped 3 kilos and eating like mad! I’ve had a few slips (left over very fruity Christmas cake with marzipan and icing and whole grain bread (refined!) and although the moment was dizzying, I tried not to feel guilty overmuch but just went straight back to the plan. So far so good. I just need to figure out how to get stuck into the website and communicate with others!

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