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Emotional Eating: Understanding and Overcoming It

Have you ever found yourself devouring a pint of ice cream after a stressful day? Or mindlessly munching on snacks when you're feeling bored or lonely? If so, you're not alone.

Many people turn to food for comfort or distraction, a habit commonly known as emotional eating. Diets and dieting can be a struggle for many, and emotional eating often becomes a roadblock to success.

Understanding why you turn to food in times of distress or heightened emotions is the first step toward breaking free from this cycle. By addressing the underlying emotional triggers and implementing effective coping mechanisms, you can regain control of your relationship with food and make healthier choices. You can conquer emotional eating and pave the way for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.

Causes and Triggers of Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is a method of dealing with emotions. Most people who emotionally eat are seeking comfort, attempting to dull the emotion, or trying to distract themselves from feeling the emotion. Emotional eating is often about unpleasant feelings, but sometimes it can also happen when the emotions are pleasant. When you’re trying to break the habit of emotional eating, understanding the causes and triggers behind it can be a big help.


Causes are the root of the emotional eating habit or the reason that each individual emotionally eats. This means that there isn’t a single cause that applies to everyone. Sometimes, you may not even be able to identify the cause because it is rooted so deeply in childhood or an experience that was so traumatic that you can’t even bring yourself to think about it.

Some examples of causes include:

  • If your mother or grandmother gave you chocolates whenever you were sad or hurt, you may now associate sweet treats with feeling better.

  • If your family believed food was love and offered food as the solution to everything, you may now feel that food is the answer to any problem you face.

  • If friends have always put food at the center of every social gathering, you may now believe that eating is the only way you can participate and meet social expectations, so you eat to belong.

While identifying the cause can be beneficial to stopping the stress eating habit, if you can’t identify it, that’s okay. Just understanding that there is a reason behind your emotional eating, even if you don’t know what that specific reason is, can be enough.


While causes are the reason behind an emotional eating habit, triggers are the things that prompt you to emotionally overeat in the present moment. Some of the things that could trigger an emotional eating episode include:

  • Work pressure

  • A breakup

  • Planning a wedding or other big, important event

  • The death of a loved one

  • Financial troubles

  • A vehicle accident or other injury

  • Health problems

While most emotional overeating is about negative emotions, and thus the triggers will be negative as well, sometimes positive feelings are associated with emotional eating. These triggers may look like:

  • Rewarding yourself or celebrating with food

  • Socializing with food

  • Making a dish that your grandmother and other family members have made for holidays

Effects of Emotional Eating on Weight Management and mental Well-being

If you’ve ever tried diets and dieting in the past, you may have already noticed the biggest problem stress eating can cause: weight gain. You may have lost a few—or a lot of—pounds only to pile them right back on because of comfort eating. But weight gain alone is not the only effect emotional eating can have.

Weight Gain and Obesity

If you’ve tried to lose weight in the past, you know that it’s hard. The difficulty in losing weight means that when you start gaining weight because of emotional eating, you’ll struggle to lose it. This may lead to more comfort eating, which leads to more weight gain, which ultimately could lead to obesity.

While obesity itself is a significant cause for concern, there are a whole host of other problems that obesity causes that you may also face. Some of these problems include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • High cholesterol

  • Cancer

  • Musculoskeletal issues

Mental Health and Well-being

Emotional overeating can also affect your mental health and well-being. Between the weight gain and often feeling as if you struggle to control your eating, your self-esteem can take a nosedive.

Other mental well-being concerns stress eating can cause include:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Other mood disorders

  • Lower body satisfaction

  • Drug and alcohol use/abuse

  • Disordered-eating mentality

Coping Techniques

Overcoming emotional eating may not be the easiest thing you’ll ever do, but there are some techniques you can use to help you put it in the past. Try these tips.

Mindful awareness

Mindful awareness around food can be one of the best coping mechanisms for overcoming stress eating. Try one or more of these mindful awareness tricks:

  • Know your triggers: Knowing what causes you to want to eat can help you resist the urge. Pay attention to the emotions, situations, or people that make you feel like you want to comfort eat and when they come up, find other things to do besides grab food.

  • Eat more slowly: Mindful eating is all about eating more slowly and enjoying every bite while also paying attention to your body’s signals of fullness. Eating mindfully when you eat your meals can help you be more aware of when you are not hungry and the urge to eat is emotional rather than physical hunger. This trick may also help you eat less when you are eating emotionally.

  • Check in with your mind: When you feel the urge to eat, check in mentally. How are you feeling? What is going on in this moment? Are you feeling signals of physical hunger (stomach growling, empty stomach, headache, lightheadedness, grumpiness)? If not, what is driving the urge to eat right now?

  • Keep a food journal: Write down what you eat, when you eat it, and how you feel before, during, and after eating it. By journaling this information, you’ll begin to notice not only the feelings that drive your emotional eating, but also the ones you feel after, which are sometimes just as bad as the ones that drive you to eat in the first place. You’ll also start to notice which foods you reach for most often and this can help you make different choices that might make you feel better.

Find Non-food Alternatives

Instead of turning to food to numb or ignore uncomfortable feelings, what other things could you do to feel better? A few options you might consider include:

  • Taking a bath

  • Going for a walk

  • Meditating

  • Working out

  • Calling a friend to talk

  • Listening to your favorite music

  • Watching a favorite show or movie

Take a Pause

When you find yourself wanting a cookie or a big bowl of mac and cheese, don’t tell yourself you can’t have it. Instead, promise yourself that if you still want it in five minutes, you can have it. Then focus on something else. By distracting yourself with work, reading, playing with the kids, or doing something else, you’ll often find that you don’t even think about that food again until the five minutes have come and gone. And if you do still want it in five minutes, you know you are making a conscious choice instead of simply giving in to your emotions.

Make Sure You Address the Underlying Cause

When it comes to emotional eating, diets and dieting won’t help. The key is to address the emotions that drive you to eat and find healthier ways to cope with those emotions and the stress that causes them. Turning to food may make you feel better momentarily, but finding healthier alternatives will be far more satisfying in the long run.


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