Why You Eat Your Emotions and What Can You Do About It

Updated: Dec 17, 2021



Food is a source of sustenance and pleasure. However, sometimes our eating habits can make us feel guilty or ashamed of eating in a particular way. Often, food becomes the easiest way to manage our emotions. We eat when we are angry or upset, stressed or tired. This emotional eating can sometimes get out of control, leading to food binges or hurting our health in other ways.


Why is food so comforting?


Emotional eating can originate in our childhood. Often, food is the way in which our parents and family members comfort us, offering treats in exchange for some peace and quiet. Sometimes, the pattern of emotional eating comes from our parents who have the same problem.


In general, food can be comforting in healthier ways. It’s natural to find enjoyment in a home-cooked meal or an elaborate dessert. But with emotional eating, food often becomes the main source of pleasure and the most accessible one. When we are stressed, busy, or in crisis, it’s easier to buy and eat chocolate than to face the problems head-on or find another way to process our emotions. Food, especially comfort food (sweets, junk food, chips, ice cream, etc.), is easily available on every corner and can make us feel better instantly. This allows us a distraction from upsetting thoughts for a bit and can improve our emotional state in the short term, so for people who feel they can’t truly deal with the issues right now, it might appear as a good option.


Food can help us feel relaxed or calmer. Sugar boosts our mood and energy, for instance, and other foods provoke chemical reactions that help our bodies feel better, at least for a while. These don’t have to be unhealthy foods either - things like turkey and bananas are also relaxing. However, we usually turn to things that have a high content of sugar and fat, which improve our mood and help us feel comforted, even if we know they are not good to eat on a regular basis.


So, the reasons why we engage in emotional eating are:

  • We were taught food as a coping skill by our family

  • It’s a habit since childhood or adolescence

  • It’s the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to deal with emotion in our current circumstances

  • We learn to associate foods with an improved mood thanks to the chemical reactions they provoke in the body


How to develop healthier habits


The first step to building healthier habits is to become truly aware of the problem. Ask yourself:

  • Do you frequently eat when you are bored, upset, sad, stressed, or angry?

  • Do you frequently eat when you are not hungry?


If you answered yes to the above, you might engage in emotional eating. Try to become more aware of the issue by paying attention to when and how you eat. Are you eating because there is nothing else to do? Are you tired or stressed and is that why you’re eating? Are you even hungry?


It can be useful to think of how hungry you are on a scale from 1-10, where a 7 means you are not hungry but you could eat more (maybe another 30% more!).


When you focus on yourself as you eat, you can see when you are especially prone to emotional eating and can start working to change the situation.


Another useful technique to apply is value clarification. It involves considering your value system. If you place a high priority on your physical or emotional health, for example, you might find that emotional eating is not consistent with these values. Identify the core values that will motivate you to make changes even if it requires a significant effort.


When you give up emotional eating, you are giving up a way of managing your emotions. You can’t keep that space empty, so you might need to replace the habit with healthier coping strategies. Move towards things that allow you to handle your emotions more constructively and focus on building better habits that will help emotional eating fade away.


A good strategy is to practise mindfulness while eating. Mindfulness refers to the practice of being aware of the present moment and everything going on around us and within us. When you eat, try to focus on the food, savouring each bite, and on your emotions and sensations. Try to detect whether you are hungry or full (e.g., above or below a 7), when you have eaten too much or still want more. Mindfulness is free of judgment. Just acknowledge what is going on as you eat and bring your focus back to it when it wanders away.


Slow down when you eat. When you eat slower, it’s easier to note why you are eating and how the food makes you feel. Take it bite by bite and enjoy the process, focusing on the tastes and the textures.


Coping with your emotions


Consider what other strategies you can use to cope with your emotions. There are many different options to experiment with and improve. Building new habits makes it easier to let go of existing ones.


  • Journaling and writing: write about your feelings and experiences, allow yourself to write freely about any experiences you want, or write creatively

  • Art: dance, sing, draw, sculpt, doodle, etc.

  • Meditation and mindfulness: practice meditation to relax, practice mindfulness when you feel stressed or upset

  • Breathing exercises: take deep breaths, practise box breathing, or focus your attention on how you are breathing

  • Social support: reach out to others, talk or text a friend, share your emotions and experiences

  • Exercise: go for a run or a walk, sign up for an activity you find fun


A healthy strategy for dealing with emotions is one that you could engage in repeatedly and long-term and have it positively contribute to your goals and sense of self-worth.


It’s important to make these new habits easier to practice. Leave space and time for yourself to sit down and meditate. Leave your writing or art supplies on the table so that they are at arm’s reach.


Also, do the opposite for foods that you tend to eat when upset or bored. Try to keep the foods you usually eat far away or don’t buy them for a while. Don’t eat mindlessly or while doing other ways, which will also help you eat healthier.


It’s important to be patient and persevere. Often you will be reprogramming a lifetime of using food as a coping mechanism.


Emotional eating is a common problem, but there are many ways to change this habit and adopt healthier coping strategies.


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