Getting to the Bottom of Emotional Eating

At a pretty young age, I learned that food was a way to deal with stress and other unpleasant emotions.  My father passed away when I was very young and although I didn't have a name for it then, I started to watch my mom mindlessly plow through bags of chips, candy and other comfort foods when she was tired, sad, stressed or lonely (and as a newly single mom, she felt a lot of those emotions).  As I got older, I started turning to food when I felt stressed, bored, neglected, sad or lonely.  It took me a long time to create the awareness that I was eating not from a place of true hunger but from a place of emotional hunger.

Emotional hunger is a longing or need for food that isn't based on actual physical hunger.  When you are truly hungry, you might hear your stomach rumble or perhaps you know it's been 4-5 hours since you last ate.  Emotional hunger has nothing to do with those sensations/observations.  You could have just finished a satisfying, nutritious meal but will still want to dive head first into a pint of ice cream or a bowl of fries or that extra glass of wine.  Sometimes those can be simple "taste" cravings but if you experience them often, you might want to explore what's going on for you when you crave those foods.

For me, I have learned that if I'm not doing good self care on the back end, my body's default to scramble for some sort of "care" is to push me towards sugary foods.  It's just looking for a little momentary comfort and if I'm not regularly being kind to it, those cravings will be overwhelming.  Kindness for me comes in the form of good sleep, leaving room in my schedule for down time and spontaneous plans with my husband or friends, "puttering" around the house, alignment of my values and my actions, saying yes to things I truly want to do and perhaps more importantly, saying no to things I don't want to do, meditating daily, moving/exercising daily, delegating tasks to others and checking in regularly to make sure I am living my authentic/joyful life the vast majority of the time.

If you find yourself eating when you aren't really hungry or eating past the point of full, don't beat yourself up.  Most of us do it at least occasionally.  The key is to start finding better ways to comfort yourself.  Here are a few ideas to start with:

1.  Pause and evaluate:  When you find yourself automatically reaching for that 20th slice of cheese (or 4th glass of wine), ask yourself what's going on for you in that moment.  Are you exhausted and trying to stay awake?  Did you have a crazy day and feel like you just want something pleasant?  Are you pushing yourself so damn hard that the only time you stop is to eat/drink so it takes on more meaning that simple nourishment?  You don't have to necessarily do anything with that info in the moment but start asking yourself some questions and see if you can identify any patterns.

2.  Take 10 deep breaths:  Taking 10 deep breaths will take less than two minutes but can often calm us down enough to keep from indulging a food craving.  Also because a lot of emotional eating reflects our stress and anxiety, breathing deeply helps heal those issues at the source.  

3.  Take a hard look at your schedule/life:  Do you have basically no free time?  Are you constantly juggling work, kids, house, family and "social obligations"?  If you feel like your life is non-stop, it's understandable if you are using the quick and easy accessibility of food or wine to compensate for not allowing your life to be peaceful and joyful.  This sounds tough but you have to start eliminating that which is non-essential.  And don't give me a line that everything is essential.  I know from my own experience that most things are not.  Yes you probably have to work in order to pay your bills but you probably don't have to stay until 7pm every night making every thing perfect.  You might have to drop your kids off at soccer practice M-W-F but you don't have to stay each time.  Stay once a week and the other couple times, take yourself to a coffee shop and read a book or go for a walk alone.  Say no to that baby shower of the co-worker you aren't really friends with.  It's okay.  The world won't stop when you start setting limits.  

4.  Carve out self care time and protect it:  You will be a better employee, manager, spouse, parent, friend and community member if you are not depleted AND you will find that your emotional eating/drinking patterns loosen up as you create time to do what you love EACH DAY.  Maybe some days it's just five minutes of sitting in your garden, 15 minutes on the phone with a great friend, a quick drive through a favorite neighborhood.  Other days maybe it's a hike in a nearby nature preserve, a few hours of uninterrupted magazine reading at a coffee shop, a mini-staycation at a local hotel, a date night with your sweetheart, a friends' weekend away.  It can be small or large but the key is consistency.  This is the "back end" of emotional eating.  You are healing the craving at the root because when you take good care of yourself, your need to self soothe with food (or even wine) goes away.

I have vast experience of my own as well as working with clients to heal emotional eating at the source.  If you want to shift your own patterns with stress/emotional eating, email me at to set up a complimentary health consultation.  I'd love to help you find solutions to your challenges!