You’ve had a stressful day at work, a fight with your partner, or you’re just plain exhausted. What do you want to do? For a lot of people, the answer is “eat.”
In a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association, 27 percent of adults reported that they eat to manage stress. Out of those people, 34 percent said they overeat or eat unhealthy foods when they’re experiencing tension.
Emotional eating happens when, instead of addressing unpleasant (or even happy) feelings, you reach for a bag of chips or a bowl of ice cream. And need we even say it? It’s not an ideal habit.
Dealing (or, more appropriately, not dealing) with emotional issues with food only serves to create more problems and stress in the long run.
Think you may be an emotional eater? Or want to know how to stop overeating when the going gets tough? We tapped top experts to find out why emotional eating happens, and more importantly, how to put an end to it for good.
When Eating Is More Than Just Hunger
There are two types of eating: Eating because you’re hungry and eating despite not being hungry. The latter can result from a variety of reasons (i.e. you’re at a party and don’t want to seem rude, or Aunt Sally just baked your favorite cookies and you can’t resist).
However, when you eat because you're stressed out or don't want to mentally deal with something, it’s an emotional red flag.
“Emotional eating is using food in response to feelings or needs, and there are a number of root causes,” notes Melissa McCreery, PhD, author of The Emotional Eating Rescue Plan for Smart, Busy Women.
“Common culprits for busy people are exhaustion, stress, emotions that feel too difficult (or time consuming), and lack of self-care.”
As with many negative habits or addictions, emotional eating has a wide variety of triggers.
“Almost anything can cause emotional eating. Any emotion, be it negative or positive, can trigger someone to want to do something to regulate their mood back to homeostasis (i.e. bring the body back to a sense of equilibrium),” says Deborah Beck Busis, MSW, director of the weight loss program at the Beck Institute and author of The Diet Trap Solution: Train Your Brain to Lose Weight and Keep It Off for Good.
“Whether they’re triggered by a good thing or a bad thing, something in them says, ‘I’m emotionally aroused. Do something to get back to normal.’ Most people are aware of the negative emotional triggers: Feeling bored, sad, tired, anxious, stressed, angry, etc. But happy, positive emotions can do the same thing,” she explains.
It’s also important to note that emotional eating, which typically affects more women than men, doesn’t always equate to emotionally _over_eating. Learning to manage either is important for overall well-being, but more physical health risks, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, accompany the latter.
The Emotional Eating Cycle
Technically speaking, emotional eating is caused by stress or other uncomfortable emotions, but it’s also something people perform out of habit.
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, talks about how habits can essentially be broken down into three parts: Cues, routines, and rewards.
According to Duhigg, almost all cues fall into one of five categories: Location, time, others, emotional state, or a previous action. (For instance, for smokers who like to enjoy a cigarette after a meal, the previous action is the meal.) Duhigg explains that, without the cue, the habit, be it good or bad, isn’t nearly as powerful.
For people who engage in emotional eating, avoiding, or at least recognizing, the cue is key. Of course, in order to do this you need to first be aware of the cue.
We've established that negative emotions like stress and anger are often triggers for those who emotionally eat, but other factors (such as boredom or the dreaded mid-afternoon energy slump) might contribute as well.
Avoiding negative feelings altogether is impossible, but being aware of emotions as they arise may prevent you from engaging in the next two parts of Duhigg’s model — the routine (taking cookies from the pantry) and the reward (eating the cookies).
In addition to identifying and/or avoiding the cue, Duhigg recommends changing the reward altogether. So, for instance, if instead of rewarding yourself with food after a bad day, you met up with a friend or took a bath, you would start changing the overall habit.
Of course, when it comes to emotional eating, there are other factors at play. Since the reason you are eating is because something is affecting you on an emotional level, you might want to explore those particular feelings.
That said, it's best to address the emotions in a positive, constructive way, as opposed to dwelling on them or sweeping them aside.
“Negative (or positive) emotions don’t automatically lead to eating, because eating is not automatic. It’s people’s thinking about the negative emotion that often leads to eating,” weight loss program director Beck Busis says.
“Generally, people have one or two categories of thoughts about negative emotions: 1) Lack of alternatives, such as thinking that eating is the only thing to do when they feel a certain way, and 2) Feeling entitled or that they ‘deserve’ to make themselves feel better with food.”
As with recognizing a cue, Beck Busis advises emotional eaters to learn to identify what thoughts lead them to emotionally eat and then come up with responses to them.
“Eating never solves the problem. The only thing it does is temporarily distract you from the problem, and then it leaves you with even more problems.”
Beck Busis reminds her clients that they very likely do deserve to feel better, and they do deserve to treat themselves, but not in ways that get in the way of achieving other important goals.
“It all comes down to building alternative coping mechanisms and helpful responses to those thoughts that led to eating in the first place,” she says. In other words, for many, ruminating on negative emotions may be more of a cue than the actual negative emotion.
Another important aspect of the situation, brought up in Duhigg's book, is the brain's response to a habit that has been going on for long enough. After a while, people begin experiencing a spike in brain activity before they get to the actual reward.
So, if emotional eating has been part of your life for a period of time, your brain will light up simply by the idea of a bowl of mac and cheese, as opposed to actually eating the mac and cheese.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
There are a few ways to go about breaking the cycle of emotional eating, but experts across the board agree that recognizing the initial desire and pausing before acting is crucial.
“When someone is faced with the urge to eat instead of dealing with of an emotion, my go-to tool for them is to use their breath,” notes Stephanie Dodier, a nutritionist and author of How to Change Any Eating Habits That Sabotage You.
“Building a gap between the urge and the reaction with five minutes of deep breathing will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (which serves to slow down your heart rate) and put you in a more rested and relaxed state. This will help you ride the wave of the emotions without using food to cope.”
Alice Boyes, PhD, and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, recommends deep breathing as well. “Taking slow breaths for a couple of minutes helps diminish the urge to emotionally eat and activates long term thinking,” she says.
“Focus on a long slow out-breath (like you’re slowly blowing up a balloon) and your in-breath will take care of itself.” Boyes also advises engaging in an action that’s incompatible to eating, such as taking a shower, or rating an urge to eat on a scale of 1 to 10 and then reassessing it 10 minutes later.
But what about the habit-reward relationship mentioned in Duhigg's book?
“When you respond to emotions with food you begin to associate ‘reward’ with food, so shifting this association is essential,” Dodier states.
“Using your breath to change the desire to eat in response to an emotion will be a huge victory for many, and it can be celebrated with new self-care habits that do not involve food, such as extra time to practice your favorite hobby or a massage. Positive reinforcement is key to habit change!”
Another aspect Duhigg mentions in The Power of Habit is the importance of planning ahead for when you find yourself in the face of temptation.
In other words, before the urge to emotionally eat even arises, make sure you have go-to actions at the ready (write them down even!). By doing this, you won’t find yourself out to sea without a proverbial life raft.
The bottom line? In order to kick the emotional eating habit — or any habit, for that matter — you need to figure out your triggers (cues), determine substitute coping mechanisms (rewards), and accept the fact that it’s not going to happen overnight.
“It generally doesn’t work for people to just say, ‘I’m not going to eat when I’m stressed anymore’ because eventually when the stress builds enough, they’re going to give in and eat,” Beck Busis notes.
“Building alternative channels for stress — things like taking a walk, calling someone, mindfulness meditation, or journaling — is key. It’s also important to give yourself credit when you’ve successfully made it through a negative emotion without eating. This way, you can be positively rewarded for not eating when you experienced a negative emotion.”