Blog Home

Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It

Medical Content Writer
Arzu Cetinkaya Medical Content Writer
Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Stop It

Around 60 percent of people who are overweight tend to be emotional eaters.

A piece of cake when frustrated, alone on the sofa with a bag of crisps, a large bar of chocolate as a reward? Emotions can influence our eating behaviour. And emotional eating is a very popular strategy for coping with different emotions and too much pressure. We literally swallow frustration and similar things with food. The good news is that you can do something about it. We’ll tell you how.

Why do we eat when we are emotional?

Feelings such as anger, fear, hate, sadness, but also love, joy and surprise do something to us. Emotional eating describes the phenomenon that people do not eat because they are hungry, but because they react to emotions. Emotional eating is their strategy for numbing or suppressing unpleasant feelings. Because it temporarily brightens the mood. In fact, a pleasant emotion such as joy can also lead to emotional eating. Perhaps you also like to grab more sweets when you are emotionally upset by a situation? You’re not alone: According to a study, around 60 percent of people who are overweight tend to eat emotionally.

Why do we like to eat energy-rich foods when we have negative feelings?

We learn early in life that we can regulate emotions through food. Breastfed babies associate feeding with feelings of security and closeness. Which comfort food we increasingly reach for varies from person to person. Many people reach for foods and dishes that they associate with positive childhood experiences – for example, the delicious cake we had for our birthday or the ice cream we had when we were in pain. Energy-rich food feels particularly good. It activates the reward system in the brain. Unfortunately, people who are overweight apparently need stronger stimuli when eating in order to experience the same feeling of happiness as slimmer people.

Why is emotional eating a problem?

Stress, boredom, loneliness, sadness – all of these emotions can tempt us to eat. We satisfy our emotional hunger, not our physical hunger. The problem with emotional eating is that we don’t actually combat the underlying feelings. Emotional eating does provide us with temporary relief. But after a short time, our guilty conscience and shame kick in. We get in a bad mood. In the long term, this cycle leads to unhealthy overeating and more weight. It is therefore important to find out why and when we eat more. Unfortunately, these psychological aspects are neglected in many weight loss programmes and are therefore often not sustainable. Because as soon as the negative feelings resurface, we return to our “tried and tested” eating habits.

Recognise your emotional hunger

To counteract emotional eating, you first need to recognise when you are really hungry and when your emotions call for food. A real feeling of hunger develops slowly, while emotional hunger occurs suddenly. Real hunger can be satisfied with various foods, emotional hunger often demands certain, usually unhealthy foods.

Strategies against emotional eating

Emotional eating can have many reasons. From relationship problems and financial worries to “rewards” after a stressful or particularly successful week at work. However, combating emotional eating is not that easy. Here are a few tips that can help you:

Be honest with yourself: Recognise and accept that you are prone to emotional eating. Try to recognise the feelings or situations that trigger you.

Keep a food diary: Keep a written record of what you eat, when you eat and how it makes you feel. This can help you recognise patterns and better understand what triggers emotional eating in you.

Practise mindfulness when eating: This means eating consciously and without distraction, savouring every meal and listening to your body’s signals.

Find substitute activities: If you feel the urge to eat for emotional reasons, try doing something else instead – for example, going for a walk, gardening, reading or listening to loud music.

Eat healthy snacks: Have healthy snacks ready in case the urge to eat becomes overwhelming. These can be fruit, nuts or vegetable sticks.

Drink water: Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger. A glass of water can help to suppress the desire to eat.

Talk about it: Share your feelings with trusted friends or family members. Sometimes just talking about a problem or a “stressful” positive surprise provides relief.

Set yourself realistic goals: Don’t forget: Change takes time. Set small, achievable goals to change your eating habits step by step.

Be kind to yourself: Relapses happen. If you find yourself eating emotionally again, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Acknowledge the slip-up, think about it and find out what you can do differently next time.

Get professional help: If nothing helps, then you should consult a therapist or nutritionist. They can show you strategies for dealing with your feelings without reaching for food.