From mindless munching to family feasts: Unpacking emotional eating

If you’ve ever watched a food commercial (or simply walked upright), you’ve probably picked up on the idea that eating isn’t always about physical hunger.

At different times, we may use food as a comfort, incentive, distraction, or reward. Maybe you’ve raided the fridge after a stressful day at work or munched your way through a box of cereal while cramming for a test. Or perhaps you’ve polished off a pizza simply because you were bored. If any of this sounds familiar, then you’re like the majority of people who have dabbled at some point in emotional eating – our drive to eat even when we don’t need to.

To some extent, we’re all emotional eaters, using food to feed our feelings. It’s most common to associate this tendency with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Yet, we may be just as susceptible to emotional eating under more positive circumstances – when we’re relaxing with a movie or hanging out with family and friends.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using food as an occasional reward or pick-me-up. The problem occurs when eating becomes a primary coping mechanism and response to our emotions. Eating for comfort may give us a temporary boost, but it comes at the cost of avoiding our underlying emotions while adding feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame to the pile. We may beat ourselves up for our loss of willpower, have a harder time managing our weight, and begin to feel powerless over food.

In the extreme, emotional eating forms a vicious cycle—becoming a source of our negative emotions as much as a way of dealing with them. Turning around destructive eating patterns isn’t easy, but we can make a start by recognizing where they come from and why they happen.

We call it comfort food for a reason

Biological Basis

Unlike physical hunger, which starts in the stomach, emotional hunger originates in the mind, when we think about a craving or want a particular kind of food. In an attempt to satisfy these cravings, we tend to opt for sweets, junk food, and other comforting foods – and usually in generous portions. This may have something to do with the biological responses triggered by these types of foods. Foods higher in fat and sugar content release dopamine and other chemicals that signal pleasure and reduce the effects of stress and negative emotions. Conversely, stress releases the hormone cortisol, which stimulates our appetite for sugary, fatty foods.

Once we learn to use food as a way to comfort ourselves, it can be difficult to go back. Studies have found that suddenly depriving ourselves of sugar and fat creates symptoms similar to those of opioid withdrawal. In that sense, our favorite foods can actually become addictive. The more we feed our addiction, the less attuned we are to our true hunger signals and the more reliant we become on food to regulate our emotions.

Social Roots

Most of us learn emotional eating patterns early on. Almost from the beginning, food plays an outsized role in our lives, serving a variety of functions that have very little to do with satiating hunger. A child who is given ice cream to help them calm down after a fall may continue to use food as a form of self-soothing. Similarly, a child who is taken out to dinner after a big achievement may learn to see food as a reward for a job well done.

Even as adults, family dynamics can continue to shape our relationship with food. Familiar comfort foods and favorite childhood recipes are often the centerpiece at family gatherings. Participating in a family meal – whether you are hungry for it or not – can also be a way to fit in with group norms. The same holds true for team lunches and other forms of social eating, like grabbing a bite with friends.

Not surprisingly, social eating has been shown to significantly increase our food intake. In addition to influencing what we consume, taking a meal with others increases the amount of time we spend eating (like when we nibble on what’s in front of us while we wait for others to finish). If you struggle with portion control at social gatherings, you are far from alone.

Lifestyle Factors

Modern advances in technology and agriculture lend a further level of complexity to emotional eating. As lifestyles have sped up, and processed foods have become more abundant, we’ve seen a significant shift in both what we eat and the way we consume it.

Today, ultra-processed foods (like the kind we find in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores) make up over half of what Americans eat, and are one of the top contributors to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Yet, in our fast-paced, over-scheduled world, these high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods offer a convenient alternative to the more wholesome meals that require significant time in the kitchen to prepare.

At the end of a busy day, it’s just plain easier to go through the drive-thru or open a bag of chips and call it dinner. So instead of the fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains our bodies rely on to be at their best, we are eating more of the wrong foods and often in greater portions than what we might prepare for ourselves at home.

The “busyness” factor also boosts our tendency to eat distractedly, like while watching TV, doing homework, or scrolling through your smart phone. Eating in this way, without being mindful about it, it’s easy to lose track of just how much we’ve consumed. This can lead to overindulgence and, in the longterm, weight gain.

Breaking the cycle of emotional eating

Get to Know Your Triggers

One of the most difficult aspects of emotional eating is that it tends to happen automatically. A craving hits, and before you even realize it, you’ve gone for the ice cream and reached the bottom of the tub. Learning to manage these urges means slowing down and paying attention to what triggers them.

It could be that certain situations make your more susceptible to food cravings. Maybe you head the pantry at the first sign of boredom or have a habit of eating off your kids’ unfinished plates at dinnertime. Or it might be that you get the late-night munchies after everyone else has gone to sleep. The next time you’re in that situation, pause and ask yourself what’s really going on. Are you actually hungry, or simply craving a way to zone out for a minute and destress? Paying attention to what you are doing and feeling when you’re most prone to emotional eating is an important first step in shifting the behavior.

Disclaimer: Halting yourself mid-craving is not going to be easy. But what if you could put off eating for five minutes, or even just one? By taking a beat to check in with yourself before you act, you create an opportunity to make a different decision.

Explore different ways of coping

They say that you don’t really break habits, you just get new ones. One of the reasons emotional eating is so hard to overcome is that it gets built into our routine. We come home from work, we open the fridge. We turn on the TV, we grab a bowl of popcorn. To break the cycle, we need to find other ways to deal with our emotions and change up the situations wherein we’re most likely to turn to food.

The path to success may require that you reconfigure your routine. For instance, if you’re someone who tends to snack in front of the TV, you may have difficulty skipping the eating part while going about business as usual. So at least for a while, you may need to find an alternate way to unwind in order to avoid the TV trigger altogether.

Is this going to feel awkward? Absolutely. Will these new behaviors be as effective at comforting you as ice cream? Probably not. But part of breaking any habit is practicing discomfort, and you are more capable of doing this than you might think.

Practice persistence

Change isn’t going to happen all at once. In fact, research has shown that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for an action to become a habit. For best results, focus on a single food-related behavior you’d like to change and build from there. Maybe it’s eating dinner in silence instead of while watching TV. Maybe it’s replacing an afternoon treat with a walk around the block. Or perhaps it’s passing on your favorite junk food at the grocery store to avoid having it in the house.

Start with one scenario and pay attention to how it goes. Repeat the new behavior again the next day. Just putting in the effort can make us more mindful of and connected to our goals.

Seek support when it’s needed

When you set a difficult goal for yourself, accountability is key. So, it’s important to ask yourself who you can to turn to when you need some extra support. You may be surprised by what a quick phone call to a family member or a walk outside among others can do to alter our mindset and calm the sense of urgency that accompanies our cravings. Spending time with loving, positive people can help to protect you from the negative emotions that trigger problematic eating.

We realize that not everyone has a support system built in. Life gets busy, family members spread out and move away, and people aren’t always available when you need to talk. In that case, it can help to talk to an expert – like a counselor, nutritionist, or therapist – who can help you identify your eating patterns, deal with underlying feelings, and establish different ways to cope.

Our Living Healthier coaching hotline is a free, confidential resource that helps Texans achieve their goals by tapping into their motivation to change. With personalized coaching, delivered over the phone and by text, you’ll have the support and accountability to approach change realistically and establish new behaviors and habits in a way that fits your lifestyle.

It may feel vulnerable to open up about emotional eating – especially if it’s something you’ve kept secret or that tends to bring up feelings of guilt or shame. But when you are working hard to make a change, sometimes the greatest motivator is simply knowing that you have someone in your corner.

Remember that health is a long-term goal

When it comes to food, the relationship is for life. Be patient with yourself as you work to figure it out.

Given that food is not something we can avoid altogether, chances are, we’ll continue to give into our cravings from time-to-time. But by staying mindful of our eating habits – and being persistent in trying out new alternatives and finding what works for us – we can get to a place where we’re better able to tolerate the discomfort of letting go of behaviors that no longer serve a positive purpose in our lives. And hopefully, we can develop a much wider range of tools for meeting the needs that were once met by food.

With time, the feeling of knowing we’re caring for ourselves – as opposed to merely comforting ourselves – can become more powerful than even our strongest cravings.