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How to beat emotional eating

Last Updated: 15 January 2019








How to beat emotional eating

Most of us have times when we fancy that piece of cake, ‘just because’, or perhaps after a really stressful day at work.  But when does emotional eating turn into something more serious? Let’s look at how to spot the signs that you may need to get your eating habits under control.

Emotional eating is when you use food to make yourself feel better— and eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to satisfy hunger. Using food as a treat, a pick me up, or as a way to celebrate from time to time is no bad thing, but when eating is your main ‘go to’ to deal with different emotions, it can lead to more feelings of unhappiness, weight gain and other health problems. 


Do you recognise any of the following scenarios? If so, it could be that you are an emotional eater. 


1. Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed? 

2. Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full? 

3. Do you find it difficult to recognise when you’re actually hungry and when you’re physically full? 

4. Do you eat to feel better (when you’re upset, anxious, angry, stressed, lonely)? 

5. Do you feel out of control around food? 

6. Do you regularly eat until you feel stuffed? 

7. Do you reward yourself with food? 


Recognising physical vs emotional hunger


The first step to getting emotional eating under control is to start to identify actual physical hunger and emotional hunger. 


Physical hunger has the following characteristics:

• Comes on gradually

• Can wait

• Can be satisfied by many foods - lots of things sound good

• Stops when you’re full

• Doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself

• Is sometimes accompanied by physical signs like a rumbling stomach and low energy levels


Emotional eating on the other hand:

• Comes on suddenly

• Feels like it needs to be satisfied straight away

• Is often for a particular food e.g. chocolate, salty foods, cakes

• Isn’t satisfied with a full stomach

• Often leads to feelings of guilt afterwards


The next step to taking charge is to work out your triggers to emotional eating. Is it stress? Is it feeling down? Is it boredom or being surrounded by certain people? If you struggle to work out your triggers, try keeping a food and mood diary - jot down every time you overeat and how you felt before, during and afterwards. Overtime you’ll soon see a pattern emerging. 


Tips to avoid overeating


Now you’ve recognised when and what’s triggering your comfort eating, you can take steps to stop it. 


Tip 1

Distracting yourself with other activities is one option - often activities that involve taking care of your body and mind can help. Treating yourself to a leisurely bath, a pedicure, or doing something active like some gentle exercise or a walk can be a good alternative. 


Tip 2

Avoiding putting yourself in your trigger situations is another helpful tool - for example, if you comfort eat when you’re at home alone, try to surround yourself with friends and family when you’re feeling like an emotional eating episode might happen. Or if you know that ice cream is your emotional eating food, then don’t keep it in the house. 


Tip 3

Address the underlying emotion. This is the most important, yet hardest factor to address. As long as the negative emotion that’s triggering your comfort eating is still lurking, it’s likely that you’ll succumb to it. If you find that you’re feeling anxious, down, upset, insecure or lonely on a regular basis, it’s important to seek support. Try speaking to your GP, a friend or family member or contacting the Samaritans (www.samaritans.org)


Tip 4

Look after yourself with healthy habits. Don’t underestimate the effect of physical activity and a healthy diet on your mood and emotions. Even just 20 minutes of endorphin boosting activity can completely re-set your emotional state.



Written by Ruth Tongue

(MSc Nutrition)

Mental health
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