Combat Emotional Eating


Every one of us at some point in our lives has fallen victim to a horrible eating pattern known as Emotional Eating.

When most people think of emotional eating, they picture a woman (yes, women are affected by this most often for some reason... blame it on hormones), eating a big bar of chocolate. Or, anything made with chocolate for that matter, like ice cream, cake, or cookies.

Many women (and some men) when they are encountered with stress, whether that stress be financial, mathematical or relationship-related, reach for food.

And often, that food is not the best choice to help deal with stress (i.e., chocolate.... not really a health food even though some people try to tell themselves it is).

But, emotional eating actually takes many forms. Not everyone dives into a pool of chocolate when they feel emotional.

In fact, some people turn away from food completely when life gets stressful and seems out of their control.

Or, some people don't always eat sugary, chocolately foods when they're stressed.

Instead, they just reach for food in general, but it's more food than they really need.

When I was doing my PhD, I was a victim of emotional eating, but I wasn't someone who ate Snickers bars. I was the person who just ate food... and more food.

Whenever I'd sit down to work on my dissertation (also known as the longest scientific paper you've ever written), I'd have to have something beside me to eat.

Now, knowing what I know about nutrition, I stayed away from junk.

In fact, my house doesn't have any junk in it at all. No ice cream, no cookies, no cake, etc. This tactic is one way I manage eating crappy food and feeling even crappier after eating it. I just keep it out of the house and I'm never tempted by it at all.

But, I don't even like those foods anyhow. I do buy cookies for my husband on occasion and even when they're in the house, I don't even touch them. They're not my thing.

My thing is real food: proteins like eggs and turkey, carbs like Ryvita crackers and quinoa, and fats like avocados and nuts.

So, when I get stressed, I eat more of these foods than my body really needs.

Picture me at my desk with plates and bowls all around me.... and me eating them all. Yep, that's what stress does to me.

I've tried gum and flavored toothpicks to keep my mouth busy, but they never really worked.

As a result, when I was writing my dissertation, I packed on extra fat pounds that didn't look or feel so great.

In contrast, one of my colleagues who was writing her dissertation at the same time, avoided food when she was stressed.

In fact, while she was working on her dissertation her clothes became baggier and looser and she dropped at least 10 lbs.

It boogled my mind to see this happening - me gaining weight because I couldn't resist food under stress and her losing weight because she couldn't even look at food, let alone eat it.

Why is this?

Why do some people eat when they get emotional? (stress, anger, sadness) While others avoid food like it's poison?

It turns out that the answer isn't known as of yet. I looked around in the research world and investigators are still trying to find the answer.

Whether it be related to blood sugar fluctuations, or cortisol, or other hormones like estrogen and progesterone, the answer is not clear.

But, what is clear is that if you do suffer from emotional eating, you can do a few things to minimize its effects:

Choose good foods versus junk. Thankfully I'm not a junk eater otherwise my weight gain from emotional eating would have been a lot more than it was. Try the tactic I explained above: keep junk foods out of your house so you won't eat them or don't buy them if you have the option. If it's not in front of you, you can't eat it.

Eat protein and/or fat with carb foods. In an attempt to keep your blood sugars stable, try to avoid eating carb foods alone. Always combine them with a protein food (like cereal with whey protein) or fat (like carrots with hummus, or apple with natural peanut butter) and you won't feel more hungry after eating them than you did before.

Drink water before you eat more food. Sometimes thirst can be confused with hunger, so before you dig into more food, drink a large glass of water first and wait a few seconds to see if you're still really hungry. Water can stretch the walls of your stomach just like food can which sends signals to your brain that you're full. And, because water is a zero calorie option, you won't gain anything other than hydration from drinking it. If you really hate water, try sparkling seltzer water or herbal tea, but NOT diet drinks made from artificial sweeteners. (the sweetness of artificial sweeteners does not curb a sweet tooth and makes you crave more sweetness). 

Take a nap! Sometimes we try to fight fatigue with food, but that's just a recipe for disaster. Nothing cures tiredness like a good nap. Now, not all of us can sleep while on the job, but if you have the option to close your office door and take a quick cat nap, that'll recharge your batteries better than any chocolate bar or "energy" drink. 

Learn about what you're putting in your mouth. One of the reasons I don't eat junk food is because I know what's in it, and I know what it does to my body. For example, when I learned in my food science class how donuts were made, I honestly NEVER ate a donut again. Never. Bottom line: if you know what's really in the food you're eating, you may never eat it again either. And, thankfully nowadays you don't have to get a degree in nutrition to know more about food - just check the internet and learn, learn, learn. :)


Today, when I get stressed, I still eat, but reach for vegetables first before anything else. I love raw cucumbers and celery the most as they're the lowest in calories but also quite filling.

Then, if I do go overboard, I always make sure I work it off later with a good lift in the gym.

Nothing's better than kicking your own butt in the gym or outside with an energy-fueled workout.

-- Cass :)

Posted Oct 09, 2010 by .

Comments for This Entry

GravatarRoland03:06PM on October 09, 2010

I'm an emotional eater. It's horrible. I hate it.

Sometimes I go work at a coffee house, where the food does not tempt me. I'm not willing to eat treats from there, since they just aren't worth it, (cost or calories) so I'm not really tempted. A cup or two of coffee and some half and half and I have a few hours of safety with just a few calories (80 calories, by my estimation) taken in.

Time of day is key, too. Late nights = emotional eating, but if I get up early to do the same work, I'm fine. I periodically do some Intermittent Fasting, and morning is my time for that. I don't feel the need to eat at all until late morning or early afternoon, no matter the stress levels.

If I work with someone else, I don't need to eat for some reason. If you have (or could have) a study or work partner, try one.



GravatarTara07:02PM on October 09, 2010

I can't claim I've totally beaten emotionally eating, but my trick to stave off the mid-afternoon chocolate craving is to have tea that has a lot of licorice root in it. The longer it steeps, the sweeter and richer it gets, so my sweet tooth gets satisfied without having to take in a lot of empty calories. That means I'm having my healthy pre-planned snacks (e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts) instead of caving and heading to the vending machine.

GravatarJaya08:10PM on October 09, 2010

Cass, you are probably going to loathe how totally unscientific my comment is, but here goes. I used to be a terrible emotional eater. I really believe that being over-informed about food was an issue for me, so my guilt seemed all the worse for it. Emotional eating is just not a problem for me now that I eat 100% (or as close as possible) according to internal cue. Building my practice of meditation was the best thing I ever did for my sense of self and for evolving my direct line to my senses. I just trust myself. I eat whatever I want whenever and I also skip meals when I'm just not hungry. The thing is, when you have a good sense of what feels good to your body (I think), you can use nutrition as one big piece of the nourishment puzzle. When I just eat on cue, I find that most often, I crave stuff that is great for me and when I don't, it's just not a big deal because I savour every bit of it. For me, that was a result of repairing a lack of trust in myself - trusting myself to just reach for the "right" thing. That said, I am a self-proclaimed food snob, so when I have a treat, I celebrate and move on. This post is a great reminder that there is a lot we can do at the nutrition level to minimize the "challenges" of emotional over/under eating. For me, it's all about breathing and just committing 100% to whatever I am doing. I'm oversimplifying the process, but I don't want to hijack here! We all have moments of confusing spirit for appetite (to use Plato's terms), so as usual...great post!

GravatarCassandra03:11PM on October 10, 2010

Jaya - your insight is totally correct. I have found the same things too. If I take the mind control out of eating, I'm more relaxed and don't feel like I'm restricted or deprived. I eat when I'm hungry, I don't eat if I'm not, and I take the "scheduling" out of my daily life. Less cognitive dietary restraint for me equates to less binging or overeating. :) And, that means a happy Cass :)

GravatarKrista Scott-Dixon06:28AM on October 11, 2010

Great piece! I have SO been there. (And occasionally, return to that crazy place.)

But you forgot to address the most important part -- noticing 'n' naming what we are actually feeling! I found that once I was able to figure out and say (out loud, if possible), "I'm sad", "I'm lonely", etc. I was able to stop an emotional eating pigout dead in its tracks. Notice too what you are feeling in your body -- are you clenching your jaw? Hunching? Tummy butterflies? etc. Tune in to the PHYSICAL signals as well as the emotional ones, and notice 'n' name them all.

I tell folks that if they want to eat emotionally after this emotional and physical "check in", to go ahead and self-medicate as required. Just do this little 5 min ritual first. The food will wait.

Also, many folks find that when they get off sugar, grains, and dairy, symptoms subside. It doesn't fix the underlying problem of whatever emotional stress we need to deal with, but it seems to make people less cuckoo.

Gravatarmimijml06:36AM on October 11, 2010

I tend to overeat when I'm stressed, especially late in the afternoon or at night. I assumed it was just a bad habit.

I now have a 6 year old daughter who has a nervous stomach, and gets a stomach ache when she's anxious. Apparently, this is fairly common, especially in children. I'm realizing that I also get a stomach ache when something raises my anxiety level. Eating often makes that feeling go away, but it doesn't deal with the core stress.

So, I'm trying to be aware that "hunger pangs" might be a sign of stress, and deal with it by relaxing instead of eating. It doesn't always work, but sometimes I'm more productive when I deal with the stress instead of just eating.

GravatarCassandra09:47AM on October 11, 2010

Krista - thanks for that insight! That's great advice and hopefully something that works for more people.

I've tried that before, but when it comes to stress... even if I tell myself I'm stressed and I'm eating just because of that, it still feels good to eat anyways. :) I love food - and it loves me back!

MIM- that's a great observation. I'm glad your daughter has such a good role model!

GravatarAnjuli07:23AM on October 15, 2010

I'm the opposite....I can't think of food when I'm stressed/sad. However, at times, I do turn to liquids - namely coffee or water. I weaned off sugar in coffee, so, it isn't too bad.
My hubby, on the other hand, is a stress eater. He also just eats more food rather than turn towards a specific food.

We stopped bringing junk food or foods like chips etc. to our home and it has helped us a lot. There have been times when it would have been SO easy to turn to those foods and not being in the house just saved us from consuming them.

Thanks for a great post :)

GravatarCallie Durbrow01:51PM on October 28, 2010

Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing. I think all of us suffer from emotional eating at some point. Just gotta remember you'll feel even worse after you eat lots of bad food.

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