Emotional Eating – What is it and how can I get a handle on it?

Picture this: You hit the snooze button one too many times, had a last minute project thrown at you at work, and then sat in an hour of evening traffic.

Finally home, you breathe a sigh of relief, head into the kitchen, and decide you deserve a snack after the day you’ve had. Maybe you reach for a few crackers, then a bit of chocolate.

Before you know it, you’ve munched your way through the entire kitchen without eating a proper meal. You’re stuffed, ashamed, and wondering what the heck just happened – WTF?!

Sound familiar?

It’s called emotional eating, and in a nutshell, it is eating for any other reason besides actual physical hunger, fuel or nourishment. 

3 Trademarks of Emotional Eating

  • Binging – usually on high-sugar and carbohydrate-rich comfort foods (i.e. junk food). How many people do you know who reach for avocado and apples when they’re upset?
  • Mindlessly eating – you’re not aware of what or how much you’re eating or how those foods are making your body feel
  • Eating to numb, soothe, please, relax, or reward self, i.e. “I had a bad day and deserve it” kind of thinking. Eating during these times provides temporary relief, but often leaves you feeling worse than where you started!

I remember when I was in college during finals week my roommate would get M&Ms to eat while we were studying.  I realized that I had mindlessly eaten them while I was feeling stressed about the tests, and gained 5 pounds, too.  The next quarter I swapped the M&Ms for air-popped popcorn as a healthier, sugar-free option, and I did not gain weight.

The trouble with emotional eating is it overrides your body’s natural hunger cycle and can promote things like: 

  • weight gain
  • an increase in your risk for inflammation and chronic disease
  • create an unhealthy relationship between you and food
  • lead to more danger types of disordered eating 

What Triggers Emotional Eating?

Even though it’s called “emotional eating” because people often reach for food to cope with their feelings, there are a lot of other non-hunger reasons that can prompt you to eat. 

Some common non-hunger reasons include:

  • Uncomfortable emotions, like anger, guilt, fear, and sadness
  • Stress
  • Boredom
  • Need to feel pleasure and/or comfort 

Five (5) Tips to Help You Get a Handle on Emotional Eating…for good!

If any of those scenarios sound familiar, know that you’re not alone! Emotional eating affects a lot of people at one point or another. 

Want to know what you can do to stop emotional eating in its tracks? Here are 5 great tips!

1. Have a non-food outlet to process uncomfortable feelings.  Think about why you’re eating.  Is it a particular food, situation or feeling that triggers you.

  • Try journaling, exercising, or talking to a trusted friend or counselor

2. Manage stress

  • Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, getting enough sleep, and not taking on more than you can realistically handle can help decrease stress levels.

3. Recognize boredom

  • Call a friend, take a walk, pick up a book, or tackle a DIY project or hobby you’ll enjoy when you know boredom is likely to strike.

4. Practice self-care

  • Pamper yourself with a bubble bath, manicure, or curl up with a good book – whatever non-food ways to treat yourself and helps you feel better!

5. Practice mindful eating

  • Take 3 slow breathes in and out before eating to activate your parasympathic nervous system (rest, digest and detox)
  • Avoid distractions at meals. Your focus should be on the food in front of you.
  • Eat slowly, chew, and savour each bite. This helps give your body time to receive the signal from your brain when it’s full.
  • Stop eating when you feel full.

RECIPE:

These energy balls feel like an indulgent snack, but are made from whole food ingredients and contain a bit of protein, healthy fat, and fibre to keep you fuller longer.

Chocolate Chip Almond Butter Energy Balls

Ingredients

1 cup natural almond butter (or other natural nut butter)

½ cup coconut flour

½ cup dark chocolate chips (try Lilly’s stevia chocolate chips)

¼ cup maple syrup

Pinch of sea salt

How to prepare

1. Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl, stirring until smooth. If mixture is too thick, add 1 tbsp of water at a time to help the mixture come together.

2. Scoop 1 tablespoon of the mixture and use your hands to roll into a ball. Repeat with remaining mixture.

3. Store energy balls in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 1 week.

REFERENCES:

Study: Current Diabetes Reports, 2018 — Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity

Study: Journal of Health Psychology, 2015 — Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating

Healthline: Mindful Eating 101 – A Beginner’s Guide

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