Anxious emotional eating is a coping mechanism where you temporarily fill your emotional needs by eating to make yourself feel better. Emotions like stress, anxiety or sadness precede it. You might order takeout if you’re lonely or finish a whole pint of ice cream because you feel sad. You know you might feel guilt afterward, but the pleasure of the sweet, salty or fried food feels comforting in the moment. It’s OK to indulge in your favorite treat to cheer you up occasionally, but it becomes unhealthy if it’s the only way you deal with your emotions.
How Do You Know You’re Emotionally Eating?
If emotional eating is a coping mechanism for you, you may relate to some of these statements:
- I eat more when I’m feeling stressed.
- I feel out of control when I’m around food.
- I feel like food is a friend.
- I still continue to eat even when I’m full.
- Food is a reward for me.
- Stuffing myself is a regular occurrence.
- Food makes me feel safe.
What’s the Difference Between Emotional Eating and Physical Hunger?
Some studies show anxiety symptoms can be linked to uncontrolled eating when it’s challenging to regulate your emotions. While physical hunger can feel intense — especially if you haven’t eaten for a few hours when you start to feel it — emotional hunger has a few differences.
Emotional Hunger Brings Specific Cravings
The point of eating is to fill your stomach up when you’re physically hungry, so any type of food will do, including vegetables or something you wouldn’t usually eat. Emotional hunger associates comfort with specific foods because it’s about the feeling you get after eating. More often than not, it will be a sugary comfort or junk food.
Emotional Hunger Is Sudden
Physical hunger gradually increases with time. Emotional hunger comes suddenly, often after something stressful or upsetting has happened. It feels sudden, urgent and persistent.
Emotional Hunger Lasts Longer
Unlike physical hunger, emotional consumption can bypass the “full” feeling after eating. You might find yourself eating a bigger portion of food than usual, eating fast without thinking about it or having the urge to eat linger.
Emotional Hunger Comes From a Different Place
Where you may feel uncomfortable in your stomach when you’re typically hungry, it’s more of a craving you keep thinking about when you’re emotional. You might think about the taste or texture, or how it would feel to have the food in that moment.
Emotional Hunger Is Accompanied by Feelings of Guilt
You may feel regret or shame over what you’ve eaten. Eating for physical hunger is less likely to make you feel bad because you’re giving your body the fuel it needs to carry on.
Strategies to Overcome Emotional Anxious Eating
Here are some strategies to stop the emotional eating cycle in its tracks.
1. Identify Your Triggers and Keep a Mood Diary
The reasons for emotional eating vary by person. For you, it may be stress-snacking while you meet a deadline for a work project. For someone else, it might grabbing a sweet treat when they start to feel anxious in social situations.
A diary will help you understand which scenarios make you feel anxious to the point of emotional eating. When you get that craving or sudden hunger, take a minute to write down the trigger, what you ate, how you felt while eating and how you felt after. Over time, you’ll begin to notice patterns in what affects you the most and devise strategies to deal with it.
2. Use the Five Minute Rule
Along with keeping a diary, it might help to hold off on eating for five minutes before you satisfy the craving. Be gentle with yourself when you do this. The point is not to deny yourself, but to wait and check in before you do.
During those five minutes, think about how you’re feeling or what the trigger is. This may help you make a different decision next time you feel emotional hunger.
3. Speak to Someone About How You Feel
This is an alternative strategy to eating when you feel emotional. Talk with a trusted friend or family member you know you can call when you start to feel anxious. If no one is available in the moment, write down your feelings then take it up with someone later. Expressing how you feel through paper or person assists in avoiding emotional eating.
4. Let Yourself Feel Your Emotions
While it may feel scary and uncomfortable — like you’re opening a box with unknown contents that may overwhelm you — acknowledging your feelings and sitting with them for a moment can have the opposite effect. Your emotions may feel less intense and you may be able to deal with your triggers. If you feel overwhelmed even after taking some time to be mindful, seek medical help or make an appointment with a psychologist.
5. Practice Mindful Eating
If you relate to the statement, “I feel out of control when I’m around food,” it may help if you practice mindful eating. Because emotional eating stems from feeling out of control internally and turning to food, slowing down enables you to choose better alternatives.
It might help to focus on eating without distractions and focusing on how the food tastes, smells, and feels. You could also think about what the food’s made of — if you’ve made a healthy dinner like salmon and veggies, think about the vitamins and minerals that nourish your body as you eat. If you’re enjoying your morning coffee, take a second to focus on the aroma and warm steam on your face.
6. Move Around
Have you ever heard the saying that emotions are partly made of energy? It’s why some people go off for a run when they’re upset and why physicians suggest you add exercise to your routine if you tend to feel anxious. Movement may reduce stress levels by releasing endorphins in your brain and can help you cope with difficult emotions. Even if you do 10 jumping jacks or take a walk around the block, getting active will help you release any nervous energy.
Overcome Anxious Emotional Eating
Remember to be gentle with yourself — anxious emotional eating is a cycle that becomes a habit over time. However, you can overcome it with healthy coping mechanisms and strategies.