If you sometimes feel like a bottomless pit and no food seems to satisfy you, there’s a good chance you’re struggling with emotional eating. Distinguishing between emotional hunger and real hunger can sometimes be tricky, especially since food is often seen as a source of comfort. Matters are even more complicated since different foods can trigger certain physical responses that, on a physiological level, do provide a certain feeling of content (for example, serotonin-boosting foods may help improve your mood).
To learn how to stop emotional eating, you first have to understand some of the subtle signs that point to it. Once you get more curious and mindful about these signs and catch yourself from an emotional eating act, you’re one step closer to recovery.
You Classify Foods as Good or Bad
While ‘clean eating’ may seem like a health-promoting trend, it may actually tilt the health pendulum in the opposite direction. The problem with so-called clean eating is its judgemental approach to foods, classifying certain foods as good or bad.
This moral weight on different food items starts messing with your subconscious mind, resulting in an almost obsession-like state where you are constantly stressed over your food choices.
Is it okay to have a chicken salad if there’s some sauce in it? The sauce may not be “clean,” so I can’t have the chicken salad!
I’m not having a cinnamon bun with my friends because it’s loaded with sugar, and it’s “bad” for your health.
Fries are loaded with inflammatory oils and fat; I can’t possibly have something like that!
There may be some truth to certain aspects of clean eating. Yes, we all know certain foods may not be the healthiest choices on a long-term basis, but that doesn’t make them inherently bad.
Having too many food rules may inevitably lead you to have an emotional stance. Even more, if you restrict certain food groups and eating times, see certain foods as “bad”, or restrict your eating in other ways, there’s a good chance you’ll end up binging on these exact same foods simply because you’ve been restricting yourself for so long.
Food rules cause more stress and harm to your body than actually having some of those foods every now and then. If you find yourself feeling uncontrollable around some foods, there’s a good chance you’re actually mentally restricting yourself, causing an emotional eating pattern.
You Always Clean Your Plate (Even if You’re Full)
Emotional eating can be so subtle that you may not even realize you’re doing it.
You can’t have dessert unless you’ve finished your vegetables.
You must clean the entire plate – don’t be ungrateful!
Unfortunately, many of us have grown up with these beliefs. Cleaning the entire plate is a habit that has been instilled in us ever since we could barely walk, so it is no wonder that, as adults, we find it hard to listen to our actual hunger and fullness cues.
Whenever you ignore your body’s signals and overeat as a result, you’re actually dealing with emotional eating, even if it comes from a long family tradition like cleaning your entire plate. If you ignore your body and attach some moral or emotional values and thoughts to your food, that’s when you’re not dealing with physical hunger anymore.
You’re Constantly Thinking about Food
It’s one thing to meal prep and plan your days ahead, but it’s another thing to mentally focus on your next meal while you haven’t even finished your current one.
If you find yourself obsessing over your next meal while still finishing breakfast, or you can’t seem to think about anything other than food, you may be dealing with emotional eating.
Physical hunger is subtle, more “quiet” and relaxed – you won’t think about your next meal while having an actual meal at the same time. Likewise, you won’t even think about food most of the day until you get hungry again.
Constant food-related thoughts, especially obsessive or anxious thoughts, point to emotional eating.
The Hunger Doesn’t Go away Even After a Big Meal
Ever felt like no matter what you eat, you still have a nagging feeling inside, and nothing quite hits the right spot? You may even eat a huge meal or keep snacking afterward. Or you may crave an entire chocolate cake an hour after finishing your dinner.
Physical hunger is quite easy to please. In most cases, you’ll be satisfied after having a meal, and that’s that for at least a few hours.
Emotional eating, however, is loud and needy, like a toddler. If you’re trying to comfort yourself through food or relieve stress by eating, no meal is ever good or big enough. No matter how much you eat, you still feel empty inside.
You Feel Guilty or Embarrassed After Eating
If you find yourself eating in secret or feeling shame, guilt, and embarrassment after eating, there’s a good chance you’re not trying to satisfy a physical hunger but an emotional one.
Unfortunately, emotional eating is usually connected to overeating or binge eating, especially on sweets and treats. Emotional hunger or stress eating may, thus, lead you into a vicious night-time snacking habit, where you try to devour all the sweets around the house, only to feel even worse emotionally than you did before.
If you’re being mindful and just having a snack to satisfy a little hunger (or even a craving), you won’t feel negative emotions afterward. Feelings of guilt and shame, however, indicate a disordered eating pattern that may be connected to deeper emotional issues.
You Eat When You Feel Negative Emotions
Got some bad news? Had an argument with a friend, family member, or colleague? Feeling sad, lonely, depressed, stressed, or anxious? You may find yourself reaching for cakes, cookies, candy, chocolate, or any other treats that could provide some comfort.
Stress-eating has become so common that it’s not even considered part of a disordered eating habit, but in reality, food doesn’t provide comfort. Food is food – it’s your body’s fuel. It may taste amazing, and you can absolutely enjoy every bite, but at the end of the day, it’s not a source of comfort.
Learning to deal with negative emotions (for example, via mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, etc) is a key skill that helps to unlock mindful eating habits and stop emotional eating. Food can’t ever remove negative emotions; only your own mind can.
If you find reaching for food whenever things get tough, it’s a tell-tale sign of dealing with emotional eating. And even more, it’s a sign of having to learn some new skills that would help you cope with negative emotions in a productive, healthy way.
You Eat Too Much Too Fast
For some, eating fast is just a normal way of eating, especially if they’ve built up an appetite.
In some cases, however, having too much food within a very short period of time may be a sign of disordered eating since you’re disconnecting yourself from your body. You may even eat to the point of feeling physically ill (or keep eating even then).
These eating patterns may indicate dealing with some stress, loneliness, anxiety, or other emotions that you may want to “suppress” as fast as possible (or get some quick enjoyment from food to forget about negative emotions).
You’re Afraid of Not Getting Your Share
Have you ever felt anxious over events or situations where you may have some shared food on the table, thinking you may miss out on your share of the food? Or keeping some food around the house and feeling afraid that someone else in your household may eat it first, leaving you with empty hands?
Feeling anxious about missing out on some foods may be a sign of emotional eating. If you’re a so-called normal eater, you won’t have any strong feelings over certain foods. Even if something runs out in the kitchen, you’ll prepare something else or just get some new food during your next grocery run.
In the case of emotional eating, you’re so strongly attached to the food and its perceived emotional characteristics that the thought of not having that food may create some fear, stress, and anxiety.
You Get Grumpy When You Don’t Have Something ‘Good’ to Eat
A little hangry feeling is completely normal – if you go without eating too long, it’s more than normal to feel a little cranky.
Things take a turn, however, when you start feeling grumpy and sour whenever your meal plans don’t go exactly according to plan, or you don’t have that special good food available.
In a way, it’s like your inner grumpy child is playing a tantrum if they don’t get their wishes fulfilled.
Normal eaters don’t mind changing their eating plans, trying something else or having some foods another time. Emotional eaters, whoever, have already made up a plan in their head, knowing that the desired food will give them a certain emotional comfort. If this plan doesn’t get realized, they may turn grumpy quite quickly.
How to Stop Emotional Eating?
Overcoming emotional eating won’t happen overnight. It’s a learning process that involves digging deeper into your emotions, thoughts, mindset, and even your childhood patterns. Often, your eating habits may be rooted in some deeper issues and patterns that you now have to unlearn. Finding support from a therapist or a coach may be helpful so you can learn to connect to your emotions and thoughts better.
If you’re struggling with emotional eating, however, don’t judge it nor attach any negative thoughts to it. Even if you found yourself stress-eating today, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, become curious and ask yourself: what happened today to bring up certain emotions?
Emotions are your body’s cues or messages that connect you to your surroundings. Keep being curious about different emotions coming up and ask yourself questions until you get to the bottom of the situation. You may even want to take up journaling so you can write down your emotions, thoughts, food triggers, and related situations.
Over time, with a good dose of self-reflection and curiosity, you can learn to overcome emotional eating and release the hold that food may seem to have over you.