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Published on May 20, 2021

Feeding your feelings: Behaviors and emotions around eating

Feeding your feelings: Behaviors & emotions around eating

Have you ever experienced a stressful situation and headed right for some chocolate or a bag of chips? This is referred to as emotional eating. Emotional eating is when people use food to deal with their feelings instead of satisfying hunger. Doing so can lead to unhealthy patterns and be problematic when done often, affecting your weight, health and overall well-being.

One myth about emotional eating is that it's triggered only by negative emotions, such as feeling stressed, lonely, sad, worried or bored. However, emotional eating also can occur when you have positive emotions, such as feeling happy during celebrations and holidays or when you're spending time with friends. Think of the type of food you have at gatherings. Is it comfort food or nutritious food?

Physical vs. emotional hunger

Checking in with yourself is a great way to begin to explore if you're eating for hunger or based on your emotions. Some helpful questions to ask yourself include:

  • Are you frustrated or having a hard time paying attention?
  • Have you been eating larger portions than usual?
  • Are you worried about something?
  • Do other people in your family use food to soothe feelings?
  • Do you eat at unusual times?
  • Has there been a big event in your life that you are having trouble dealing with?
  • Do you feel a loss of control around food?
  • Are you overweight or had a recent increase in weight?

Depending on your answers, they could be indicators of emotional eating. The following chart also can help you determine if you are experiencing physical or emotional hunger.

Physical hunger Emotional hunger
Tends to come on gradually and can be postponed Feels sudden and urgent
Can be satisfied with any number of foods Causes very specific cravings - pizza or ice cream
Once full, you probably stop eating You tend to eat more than you normally would
Doesn't cause feelings of guilt Can cause guilt afterward

Breaking the cycle

To help you recognize patterns between what you feel and what you eat, consider keeping a mood or food journal and writing down what you ate, how much you ate and how you were feeling as you ate (happy, mad, sad, bored, worried, overwhelmed, etc.). Make sure you write down if you were hungry or eating for comfort. You also can try to pause for five seconds before reaching for food, think about your day so far and ask yourself what has happened and how you're feeling. By checking in with yourself—whether by writing in a journal or pausing before you eat—it's more likely you'll notice whether you're hungry or eating out of habit.

After you've determined the emotions behind the reason you are eating, you may want to find something else to do. Develop a list of alternative activities you can enjoy, such as going for a walk, listening to music, going to the library and reading, fishing, taking pictures or videos, or going to a friend's house.

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