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Understanding emotional eating

Medically reviewed on May 11, 2023 by Morgan Spicer, Medical Communications Manager. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Your emotions can influence your eating habits, causing you to eat more or less food than your body needs. Understanding your eating patterns can help you understand if and how emotional eating may be impacting your weight and overall health.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when you eat for a reason other than hunger. For some people, strong feelings and emotions like sadness, fear, loneliness, and worry prompt them to eat more than usual. [1] Over time, eating when you’re not hungry can lead to overeating, weight gain, and unsuccessful weight loss attempts. Learning how to recognize what triggers emotional eating patterns can help you build a healthier relationship with food.

Self Reflection: In what ways do your emotions affect your eating choices?

Identifying eating triggers

A trigger is something that leads to another behavior. [1] Hunger is your body’s natural eating trigger, but you may eat for other reasons as well. For example, if you’re experiencing a stressful situation, you might eat foods you wouldn’t normally eat, like foods that are higher in sugar or fat. Identifying your eating triggers can help you understand why, when, and how much you choose to eat.

Common emotional eating triggers include:

  • Lack of sleep: Not getting enough restful sleep is linked to weight gain. [2] Getting at least 7 hours of restful sleep each night may help you make better food choices.
  • Stress: Stress triggers the reward processing center of your brain, which is why some people turn to comfort foods when navigating stressful situations. [3] Learning how to manage your stress levels in healthy ways can help you establish healthier coping strategies around food.
  • Routines: Many daily routines involve food, such as snacking while watching TV in the evening or going out for lunch during the workweek. Looking for ways to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones is a simple way to stay aligned with your weight-related goals.

Self Reflection: What are some of your eating triggers?

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The apple test

So, how can you tell if your emotions are behind your desire to eat? One easy way to tell if you’re eating because you’re hungry is to do a quick “apple test.” Before you eat, ask yourself this simple question: “Would I eat an apple instead?” If the answer is no, you might be eating for a reason other than hunger. This practice encourages you to eat more mindfully as you learn how to recognize your internal hunger and fullness cues more easily.

Finding non-food activities

If you notice that you frequently eat for reasons other than hunger, it may be helpful to create a list of non-food activities that you can choose instead. This offers you alternatives “in the moment” when you’re deciding if and what to eat. When your emotions rise and you find yourself reaching for a snack, choose a non-food activity instead to break the behavior link.

Here are some examples of non-food activities:

  • Take a short walk
  • Write in your journal
  • Do a 5-minute meditation
  • Practice deep breathing exercises
  • Drink water
  • Phone a friend
  • Do a crossword puzzle

Self Reflection: Make a list of non-food activities you could do instead of eating when you’re not hungry.

While emotional eating does not necessarily mean you have eating disorder, some people who struggle with emotional eating also struggle with disordered eating behaviors. If you have concerns about your relationship with food, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) can help you connect with a professional who can support you.

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  1. Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Comer L. Triggers of eating in everyday life. Appetite. 2009;52(1):72-82. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2008.08.002
  2. Sleep and Chronic Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed May 11, 2023.
  3. Anand C, Hengst K, Gellner R, Englert H. Effects of the healthy lifestyle community program (cohort 1) on stress-eating and weight change after 8 weeks: a controlled study. Sci Rep. 2023;13(1):3486. Published 2023 Mar 1. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-27063-4
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