From the moment we come into the world, we learn that
the act of eating is associated with love and comfort. Nursing as newborns is our
first act of bonding and obtaining a sense of comfort and love along with food.
As we get older, food is often used as a reward for being “good.”
We carry that behavior into adulthood, comforting and rewarding ourselves with food
on particularly difficult or
stressful days. Beneath our deep emotional connections to food, there are
often underlying physiologic
imbalances that can lead to
cravings and overeating which can complicate matters further. When something
feels wrong inside our bodies, that message can be transformed into a sense of hunger
or emptiness. Subsequently, we tend to eat to overcome this discomfort and fill
So it’s no wonder we turn to food when we feel “off,” either physically or emotionally.
And it’s no surprise that when women are told to stop eating if they’re not really
hungry, they often can’t. It’s simply not that easy to shut off a lifelong pattern.
While it’s common to comfort yourself with food when you’re feeling stressed, sad,
nervous, angry, tired, or even bored, it helps to have the right tools and techniques
to figure out the true cause of your “hunger.” Finding real-life solutions for emotional
eating starts with developing the awareness to recognize what your body is really
asking for so that ultimately, eating becomes only a means of fueling your body.
If you have deeper issues with food or overeating, we highly recommend seeing a
counselor or therapist to help you sort through and resolve core emotional issues.
Our approach to resolving emotional eating has three steps:
1. Gain awareness.
2. Explore possible root causes.
3. Make a plan.
Gain awareness: Are emotions guiding your food decisions?
Why and when we eat, and how much we consume are not black and white questions —
there are many shades of gray. At some point in our lives, all of us are emotional
eaters. It’s not something to feel guilt or shame about. But there are some questions
to consider once you’ve become an adult:
- Do you turn to food when you’re upset or stressed?
- Do you feel guilty or unhappy about what you eat?
- Do you deprive yourself of meals or snacks when something has gone wrong in your
- Do you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry because it makes you feel better?
- Do you think about food all the time?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, think about how often the
scenario happens and how you feel after you’ve eaten. If your emotions are routinely
dictating what and how much you eat, the first step to changing that pattern is
to become aware of it. Instead of getting to the bottom of a bag of chips and realizing,
I’m eating these because I’m stressed, I’m angry, I’m sad, etc., it’s better
to stop and recognize what you’re doing before you’ve gone too far — or even before
you take your first bite. Ultimately, you want to give yourself the space to decide
whether you’re truly hungry or instead trying to smother an emotion, or satisfy
a feeling or desire with food.
Explore root causes: food cravings aren’t about self-control
Women tell us, I have no self-control when it comes to eating. Any time I’m upset,
nervous, anxious, or even happy, I turn to food. It’s always good if you
can identify the potential root physiological causes of your hunger. These can be
much easier to fix than deeper, more mysterious emotional issues.
So many women berate themselves for giving in to cravings for sugar, carbohydrates,
chocolate, salt, or caffeine. In many cases, cravings have nothing to do with self-control
or emotional state. Instead, cravings can stem from genuine physiological imbalances
in the body. The most common imbalances that can cause cravings are:
- Adrenal imbalance — often
caused by chronic stress that leads to high cortisol, our body’s “stress” hormone.
imbalance — often caused by low serotonin, the hormone primarily in charge of
- Hormonal imbalances
— often caused by the shifting hormone levels that accompany perimenopause, menopause
and premenstrual syndrome.
- Thyroid imbalance — often
caused by chronic stress and/or menopause changes, leading to low levels of thyroid
hormone, which is in charge of metabolism.
- Food sensitivities — caused by certain foods or ingredients like gluten, dairy,
yeast, eggs, soy, and citrus that trigger chronic activation of the immune system.
- Yeast overgrowth — often occurring in the gut due to lack of healthy bacteria or
chronically high blood sugar levels.
- Blood sugar imbalances — often caused by diets high in simple or empty carbs but
low in fiber, accompanied by rapid spikes and drops in energy levels.
- Nutritional deficiencies — most commonly B vitamins, zinc, vitamin D and magnesium.
- Leptin resistance — typically occurring when our bodies fail to respond effectively
to messages from this hormone that sends the “I’m full” signal.
Systemic imbalances can confuse your body’s signals about food and weight, leading
to overeating that may look like emotional eating on the surface. If you’re interested
in working past systemic imbalances and losing weight, our
Weight Loss Resistance Program is an effective way to get past your personal
physiologic barriers so your body can begin the process of letting go of excess
Make a plan: tips for satisfying eating
We often don’t take the time to explore our emotional connection to food and can’t,
or don’t, always think before we act. This is why it helps to make a firm plan that
you can use as a guide as you make changes. Below are practical tips to consider
as you create a comprehensive plan for dealing with, and ultimately moving away
from, emotional eating. You don’t have to do all of these! See which ones resonate
the most for you.
1. Pay attention to your hunger signs. Rate your hunger on a scale
of one to ten. One is not hungry at all and ten is starving. Try to eat when you
are at about seven. You should feel your stomach start to growl, but should not
be feeling light headed yet. Getting too hungry may lead to overeating, and isn’t
good for your metabolism.
2. Make a list of foods you enjoy eating — ones that make you feel good.
Go to this list when you feel confused about what to eat. If you are craving foods
that tend to make you feel good, rather than full, it’s likely you’re confusing
hunger for something else.
3. Cut sugar from your diet. Sugar causes rapid spikes in your
energy level, followed by even faster drops so you get hungry more often. That’s
why sugar can be as addicting as some illegal drugs. And it can certainly lead to
overeating by sending craving signals masquerading as hunger signals even when you’re
full. Foods high in both fiber and protein are digested more slowly, which gradually
increases energy levels and sustains them for longer periods.
4. Drink plenty of filtered water. Dehydration can make you feel
like you’re hungry when you aren’t, so keep the water flowing all day. Additionally,
drinking water with meals can slow down the rate at which you eat so you can feel
those "full" sensations sooner.
5. Find the right multivitamin. We seem to crave foods rich in
the nutrients our bodies are lacking, so cover your bases with a comprehensive daily
vitamin like those available in our SHOP.
6. Portion out healthy snacks in small to-go bags and keep them on-hand
in the fridge and pantry. Try cut carrots, handfuls of nuts, a few slices of cheese,
or a hard-boiled egg. Planning ahead makes it quick and easy to choose healthy snacks
instead of pre-packaged options that aren’t as good for you. This technique is good
to put into play if you travel a lot.
7. If you’re going to a party or special event, create a winning food-and-drink
strategy ahead of time. For example, I’m going to have one alcoholic drink
and two desserts tonight. Next time I can do something different, if I choose to.
Then, stick to the plan.
8. Make all the food you eat for a week from scratch. While this
takes time, it allows you to plan and be more mindful of ingredients and portion
size. Many women find success controlling their meals when they rotate between three
favorite (but different) breakfasts, three lunches, and three dinners. An added
bonus is the cost of making foods yourself is significantly less than eating out.
Simply reducing the amount of food you eat without understanding your patterns of
eating can set you up for a diet that is too restrictive and uncomfortable, and
therefore unsustainable. The key to developing a healthier relationship with food
is to gain a sensation of feeling good that you’re providing what your body needs.
It helps you replace feeling guilty or wrong about what you’re eating with the satisfaction
that comes from taking good care of yourself.
Feeling good and eating well
If you think you might be an emotional eater — lots of us are — know that you can
do something about it. Gain awareness, explore emotional and physical causes, and
make a plan. These three steps can lead you to make lasting changes in your life
while still enjoying the act of eating — and we’re here to support you along the
11 Kjaerbye–Thygesen, A., et al. 2004. Why do slim women consider themselves
too heavy? A characterization of adult women considering their body weight as too
heavy. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 35 (3), 275–285. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15048943
2 de Lauzon–Guillan, B., et al. 2009. Cognitive restraint, uncontrolled
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Chil Nutr., 5 (2), 171–178. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19292751
3 Rørtveit, K., et al. 2009. The feeling of being trapped in and ashamed
of one’s own body: A qualitative study of women who suffer from eating difficulties.
Int. J. Ment. Health Nurs., 18 (2), 91-99. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19290972
4 Bulik, C., & Taylor, N. 2004. Runaway Eating: The 8-Point Plan to Conquer
Adult Food and Weight Obsessions. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
5 Meyer, C., et al. 2009. Emotion and eating psychopathology: Links with
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6 Fox, J., & Harrison, A. 2008. The relation of anger to disgust: The
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8 Rørtveit, K., et al. 2009.
9 Bohon, C., et al. 2008. Female emotional eaters show abnormalities
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